My wife, Mattie McFadden Lawson, and I recently had the honor of traveling to Montgomery, Alabama, where we visited for the first time, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Museum for Peace and Justice, both of which were born out of the vision of Bryan Stevenson, an American lawyer, social justice activist, the founder and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the character on which the legal drama Just Mercy is based. Bryan Stevenson was inspired by the examples of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany, and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, to create a single memorial to victims of white supremacy in the United States.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors the names of each of more than 4,000 African Americans who were lynched in the 12 states of the South from 1877 to 1950. Once you’ve experienced these museums, you clearly understand how the history of slavery and lynching has influenced the high rate of death sentences in America and its disproportionate application to minorities.
Each museum is unique, but together they tell a story that is too often left untold in the schools and libraries.
The Legacy Museum features artists: Hank Willis Thomas, Glenn Ligon, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Titus Kaphar, and Sanford Biggers, as well as a collection of soil from lynching sites across the United States. Their artwork should be familiar to every African-American student.
When I entered the museum, I was immediately led down a pathway that introduced me to the horrors that were at the core of slavery within the United States. I could hear, see, and be in close proximity to slave replicas that depicted what it was like to be an imprisoned slave awaiting sale at the auction block. These are first person accounts of slavery and auctioning through narration and voice overs, but it did not stop there.
As I continued on the path, I was able to follow the clear connection between slavery and the continuance of racial oppression in other forms, including terror lynching and mass incarceration of African-Americans. The exhibits include photographs of African-Americans picking cotton in 1960, but the photos could be easily mistaken as depicting the slavery period.
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration employs technology to dramatize the horror and terror of enslavement, lynchings, and legalized racial segregation in America—a history that I did not find in the history books of my formal education. As you walk through the museum, you see the clear connection between the post-Reconstruction period of lynchings and the high rate of executions and incarceration of people of color in the United States.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was built on six acres in the downtown area of the state capital and through the painstaking study of records in counties across the United States, this museum documents almost 4400 “racial terror lynchings” in the post-Reconstruction era between 1877 and 1950. Most took place in the decades just before and after the turn of the 20th century. But this history is not ancient, it is current.