I arrived in Birmingham in July 2019 on a surprisingly cool day for Alabama. I had decided to fly to Birmingham and drive to Montgomery to visit the new Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The museum and memorial were the brainchild of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and its founder and executive director, Bryan Stevenson, whose work on behalf of death-row inmates had long captured my attention.
Montgomery was just a little over 90 minutes from Birmingham, a relatively straight shot south along Highway 65. I loved driving that road; it reminded me of the days I used to travel from Morehouse College in Atlanta to my hometown in Mississippi. That drive took about six hours, heading southwest along Highway 65 until it intersected with Interstate 10 just outside of Mobile. From there, I-10 would take me to the eerie beauty of the Gulf Coast and to my momma’s home cooking.
I arrived a bit early for my timed ticket at the Legacy Museum, so I decided to walk around Montgomery. For all those trips passing by the city on the way to and from college, I had never actually stopped to visit. I had never seen the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church or visited the Rosa Parks Museum. So from the museum I headed southwest along Coosa Street, winding my way past the Rosa Parks bus stop and turning down Dexter Avenue, which dead-ends a few blocks down at the state capitol, whose white dome rises above the low-lying surroundings. I imagined hearing George Wallace’s words “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” I read signs that described the grandeur of the five-day Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965 and how it ended in front of the steps of the capitol building with Dr. King narrating a history that brought the movement to that moment and voicing his refusal to go back to what was: “The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children.”
In old cities, it’s not uncommon to find a lot of history packed into a small expanse of land, and Montgomery is no exception. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church itself is built on the site of an old slave pen and sits just a block away from the house where Jefferson Davis lived and led the Confederacy during the Civil War. From Dexter’s staircase, the platform from which King and generations of Black preachers and parishioners would have emerged each day, one can see poking through the trees to the northeast a figure extending upward from a column next to the state capitol. This is the top of the Alabama Confederate Monument, an 88-foot-high tribute to the soldiers of the South. Its cornerstone was laid on April 29, 1886, three years after work began a block away on the brick building that now houses Dexter. For almost the entire history of the church, then, its congregants have had to confront a white supremacist memorial on the horizon.
The building of the Legacy Museum is only about 11,000 square feet. When you enter the front door, after you pass through security, you walk into a dark area and are immediately introduced to the scale and violence of the slave trade and to Montgomery’s role in it. This is a narrative museum, and its story is one of the continuous and vicious strands of racial violence that characterize this country’s history. As you move into the major part of the museum, you encounter a wide-ranging narrative that reaches from slavery to mass incarceration. One wall in the museum has shelves full of bottles of soil from the places where people were lynched. The bottles are large, at least a foot tall, and each one contains a unique shade of earth, running from deep browns to umbers to sandy tans. The distinctive colors and textures of the soil make each jar like a signature of land, with dark histories written into the composition.
I decided to stand in the middle of the room. I wanted to see and feel what was happening on this unusually comfortable summer day in Alabama in a museum that challenged America’s innocence. Two women, one Black and one white, sat close to each other on a bench watching Technicolor video footage of Dr. King speaking about the legacy of slavery and segregation and how it affected Black people. In the video, King questions the demand that Black people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. “It is a cruel jest,” he says, “to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” The women watched King intensely, slightly bent forward. Both were crying. I thought they were together because of the intimacy of their grief. But then they got up and walked their separate ways. The white woman looked at me as she passed by and said, “This is rough.” The Black woman simply walked away shaking her head.
The museum’s story isn’t necessarily a linear story, at least not in the organization of the space. Sounds and sights bleed from one section into the next, and if you stand in the center of this small museum, as I did, you can hear the sounds of freedom songs and the screams of people being overrun by the police in Selma. You can hear people taking in the violence of it all with deep sighs and hushed groans. It is the cacophonous song of America.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (often called the Lynching Memorial), the other half of EJI’s Montgomery project, is a little less than a mile south of the museum. A shuttle bus ferries visitors between the two. From the cramped space of the museum, we rode to the six-acre open space of a memorial to the lynched Black body. The architects had been inspired by the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. With sculpture, art, and design, they had aimed to build a place to heal. It felt like sacred space.
More than 800 monuments, which look like vertical headstones made of CorTen steel, sit at eye level, and as I walked I could read each county and count the number of dead. Some had one or two or three people listed. Others had many more. I started taking photos of those counties that had more than ten lynchings, imagining these places as haunted by ghosts. Had anyone in any of these counties acknowledged the carnage? Had anyone atoned? I kept taking photos, but it became too much. I had to stop. I was overwhelmed with grief.
As I kept walking, the floor slanted downward, but the monuments remained level. Before long their bottoms were above my head. As I looked up at them, it was as if I were witnessing bodies swaying from poplar trees—except these were stiff. In contrast to what I’d experienced in the Legacy Museum, where the experience could take on a nearly communal feel, as I moved through the memorial I wasn’t fully aware of others around me. This was a solitary experience. An entire wall, black and shimmering, which stretches the length of the side of the memorial, is also a wall of tears, with water streaming for the dead memorialized there.
The experience was only intensified when I saw the monument for Jackson County, Mississippi, the place where I was born and raised. Eight people had been lynched there. Throughout my childhood, I never heard that such a horrendous thing had happened, never mind happened eight times, anywhere near my home. I knew none of the names. As the jars of dirt at the museum had made plain, the places we live are often, though not always, landscapes layered with the violence of generations. It is in the soil that nurtures us even when we can’t see it on the surface.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that in order for human beings to live full lives we must cultivate our ability to forget. “It is possible to live with almost no memory,” he said, “but without forgetting, it is quite impossible to live at all.” He was referring to history. But the National Memorial for Peace and Justice represents a traumatic history, and it isn’t easily forgotten. Our bodies carry the traumas forward. The history of racial trauma lives on and moves us about in ways we often don’t realize. It grounds our fears and, whether we know it or not, it affects our dreams. In places all over, the legacy of this terror and trauma continues to haunt. The memorial confronts the trauma directly and offers us, in its own way, a chance to begin again.
Of course, there are no guarantees. Just down the road a bit, a large Confederate flag still towered over Highway 65 as I drove back to Birmingham.
Excerpted from Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (Crown).