Memorials, Education And Who We Are
Note: This week, the LWVMC is on the road, traveling to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Peace and Justice Memorial.
Lush greenery has burst open in the warm spring morning. In the distance, pillars of white clouds contrast against a darker blue, hinting at rain but not quite a storm. At the top of a hill overlooking Montgomery, Ala., the Peace and Justice Memorial stands ready to accept visitors. Uniformed docents invite people through the security line, where the first paces are a flat stretch giving a breathtaking view of corten steel slabs that have weathered from their natural silver to the color of red clay.
To approach the main monument, visitors circuit a wall explaining the history of chattel slavery in North America. Bronze bodies depict captives – four men, three women and one nursing baby – frozen in horror. Clouds gather as visitors read the wall. Walking on, they find shelter under a roof and stand on par with each block. Here they could try and read the names of the 4,400-plus lynched black Americans engraved on the 804 slabs. Each block represents a county and state where humans were lynched in a campaign of terror intended to telegraph fear to the country’s African Americans. One docent, a disabled vet, explained that those columns don’t cover all the names. The rest are written in family bibles, held as private family sorrows.
Walking through the first side of the quad, you might think you could absorb the names until you reach one for Tulsa, Okla., where the names are engraved in such tiny, unreadable letters because there are too many. It’s the first time you may notice that the slabs are no longer touching earth, they are hanging there, a little above your waist. Walking on, you’ll notice the same last names with the same day of death. Someone’s mother or wife lost her world that day. The vet explains that seven of his family were lynched, an experience common in many landowning black families.
“They refused to leave their land,” he said, explaining that during Reconstruction, newly emancipated black Americans outnumbered whites though they had less than 1 percent of the land. In 2023, they own even less, the result of white landowners who lynched the ones who wouldn’t run to terrorize everyone else to flee, often to the north.
On the first turn right, your neck begins to pitch back. A quadrilateral of wood that seems to be the foundation of the column sits below the slab, with the distance increasing as you walk down the second side. If it fell, would it fit snuggly into its base? It would surely make the earth quiver.
By the time you reach the second corner of the square, you’re craning to read names. Counties and states are stamped into the bottom of the column, the rain has started, and it’s weeping down the columns near the edge. Some visitors ask where their county, their state, might be. Plaques affixed to the wood walls name some of the lynched and the reason for the purported “vigilante justice,” which is anything but justice. Some reasons for lynching: trying to vote, performing a wedding, not losing a fight with a white man, frightening a white girl, “slandering” a white person, protesting a lynching, standing around in a white neighborhood, asking to marry a white girl, merchants thinking money was counterfeit, writing a note to a white woman, leaving a farm where he worked, refusing to turn a son over to a mob and knocking on a white woman’s door. It echoes recent shootings where a young girl knocked on the wrong door, or of Ahmaud Arbery taking a run in his neighborhood, the kid Tamir Rice playing in a park, Philando Castile a school employee driving with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old.
Hoosier visitors must wander around to the last side of the square and head into the courtyard to read the names of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, among the other 25 Hoosiers lynched in Indiana. These, and the only survivor of the 1930s Marion lynching, James Cameron, were treated as less than worthy of the U.S. Justice system. Maybe you haven’t heard James Cameron survived, a mere 16-year-old boy in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Maybe you haven’t seen the postcards printed and sent out to boast attendance at that torture event? Maybe you didn’t know that lynching mobs often kept body parts and had postcards made to send to family far away about being present for this horror? At least there are only three slabs for Indiana and far fewer lynchings than in the south, one might think. Then again about 250 of 569 municipalities enforced “Whites Only” codes, which threatened harm or imprisonment if a minority stayed in the limits after dark. After Illinois, Indiana had the most “sundown” towns. Of course, that’s only full cities, not neighborhoods with homeowner’s associations and FDIC-backed redlining. Also, the state dismantled the thriving black Indiana Avenue community to place Interstate 65.
The last interior wall of the memorial is a gentle waterfall that sounds like tears. The six-foot tall slabs now hang far above visitors’ heads forcing anyone to throw back their necks to read. Hold up a mirror and your neck might look as turned as the person hanging from a tree. The neck aches, as if it’s borne witness for too long the violence that happened over and over, suffocating the breath of women, children, fathers and sons.
Memorials like this and the Vietnam Wall train the body to experience emotions by design. Some memorials seem to be erected to declare a conquering hero, a person on a horse or with a musket. Some are about dominance. Some sober us and instigate curiosity, more likely to educate than celebrate.
The debate about monuments may have cooled, but the content that documents the memorialized history is now on fire in our public debate about schools and libraries. What content can a teacher present? What can a library shelve? Perhaps 804 steel slabs will hold their ground until the library shelves and textbooks are no longer in danger of going up or disappearing in smoke, because America’s unifying principle is about working out differences through the systems and safeguards of democratic rule, rather establishing a homogeneous culture. This we must not forget.
-The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page