Building a New Memorial to America's Troubled Past

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Why you should care

Because markers, monuments and memorials help tell a story that should not be forgotten.

Walking around the streets of Berlin, it’s hard to miss the brass-topped cobblestones along the sidewalks, each marking and naming a victim of the Holocaust, placed before the home from which they were taken. A physically small but still powerful reminder of a tragic past.

Markers and memorials matter. It’s much harder to remember or imagine what you cannot see. Which is also why if you spend any time journeying by car across the American South, you will notice dozens of markers and monuments commemorating Confederate soldiers, victories, deaths and more. What is often neglected in the controversies swirling around these memorials, including the Confederate flag, are all of the untold stories — the myriad deaths, crimes and tribulations that are not commemorated. Nations like Germany, South Africa and Rwanda have taken their own steps to recognize and move past their painful histories by erecting memorials, markers and museums. And now, America is at last taking a big first step toward addressing its own history of racial injustice and violence through monument-building, with a groundbreaking new national memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama.

America has long been very selective with which aspects of its history it chooses to memorialize.

Using architecture to help communities heal is nothing new to Michael Murphy, project designer and co-founder of MASS Design Group, a socially conscious architecture firm. He along with five students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design founded MASS, and they’ve worked with aid groups, governments and other countries on a number of such projects, including a hospital in Rwanda that uses well-ventilated spaces with natural lighting to improve health conditions and minimize the spread of disease in a nation that’s still recovering from genocidal atrocities.

Their proposed Memorial to Peace and Justice will perch on a hill near Montgomery and honor the more than 4,000 African-Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950. The classically inspired designs for the memorial, which breaks ground later this year, feature rows of columns that appear to support the structure. Upon entering, however, it becomes clear to the viewer that the columns are hanging suspended from the ceiling. You can feel the shock of the place in the Murphy’s TED Talk, above. Outside, a field of identical columns wait “in purgatory” until towns and counties wishing to acknowledge their history claim the markers and place them at their own sites to memorialize the lynchings. “Over the next few years, this site will bear witness,” said Murphy of the proposed memorial in his TED Talk. “As each of these markers is claimed and visibly placed in those counties, our nation will begin to heal from over a century of silence.”

For this project, which may also include a museum on the site, Murphy’s firm is partnering with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an Alabama nonprofit that released its comprehensive report Lynching in America last year, documenting 3,959 incidents of lynching — “acts of terrorism … carried out with impunity, sometimes in broad daylight.” The Memorial to Peace and Justice is but the latest, and most ambitious, memorial initiative for EJI and its executive director, famed civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who has also been working to convince local towns and communities across the South to place historical markers at lynching sites. “I really believe that in America, we’re not free,” Stevenson argues in his own brief TED presentation, because, he says, we do not confront the racial injustice that pervades our nation’s past. “We have to create a new relationship with this history.”

Part of the problem, says Jason Morgan Ward, a history professor at Mississippi State University, is that America has long been very selective with which aspects of its history it chooses to memorialize — among other things, military leaders and white historical figures tend to be “far more elevated and visible.” Another challenge to erecting markers and monuments to the lynchings that terrorized African-Americans for decades — and which makes a central memorial so essential — is that sites of destructive violence, says Ward, whose new book Hanging Bridge examines the history of one such site, are often not preserved or are difficult to pin down. And even when a fitting location has been determined, resistance from local officials to erecting memorials, as Stevenson has experienced, can be hard to overcome in some areas. Project leaders for the Memorial to Peace and Justice still also face the additional challenge of raising several million more dollars in order to complete it.

Such efforts are necessary, though, if America is to truly begin to come to terms with its legacy of racial violence and injustice. For just as the brutality of lynching was not only about enacting vigilante justice upon select individuals, but rather about terrorizing an entire community, acts of memorialization are not just about remembering particular injustices — but also of healing an entire community, and nation.

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