Say Their Names: The legacy of racial terror: Montgomery Alabama

Say their names, the 4400 documented victims of lynching, the millions more of undocumented victims of racial terror. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery draws the unambiguous and direct line from enslavement to Jim Crow to lynching to mass incarceration to police violence to voter suppression.

The Memorial, along with the Legacy Museum, is a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson, the social justice activist, author of Just Mercy and lawyer who has saved many from execution.

Begin your visit with the Legacy Museum. Hear and read the voices of enslaved people, describing the brutality of children being ripped from the arms of mothers, the senseless beatings, the utter dehumanization of a system that traffics in human beings.

Image of a lynching in Texas attended by thousands of white people. Postcards of the murder were sold as souvenirs

So much is packed into this small but mighty museum: the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by the courage of Rosa Parks and the leadership of a 26 year old Martin Luther King, Jr., image after image of “Whites Only” or “Colored Waiting Room” signs, texts of statute after statute banning any kind of contact between Blacks and whites, other than oppression and subservience. You enter the Museum to a replica of the slave market pens where enslaved people were kept, in places like Montgomery, until they were sold. You hear first person accounts from these enslaved people, making unavoidable the visceral experience of this particular form of hell. A few steps away, you hear the first person accounts of people unjustly incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.

Perhaps even more viscerally moving is the Memorial, a few blocks away from the Museum.

You approach the Memorial across a serene garden and an impeccable carpet of green lawn. Then, you pass a sculpture of enslaved people in chains. You continue up the green knoll to the Memorial. Here, hung from the ceiling like the victims of lynchings hung from the hangman’s nooses, are more than 800 corten steel blocks, one for each county in the South where a lynching occurred, each block inscribed with the names of victims. Outside the building, the steel blocks are laid side to side, like tombs.

Inside, at first, you are at eye level with the steel blocks. As you move around the circular Memorial, gradually you find yourself underneath the engraved blocks hanging from the ceiling. The power of this is overwhelming. In a few steps, I had moved from visitor to witness. I was unmistakably under the hangman’s noose, seeing a lynching. As a white person, I could not turn away from the questions- what would I have done if I lived in Alabama in 1906? Would I have averted my eyes? No, I have to ask myself now, what am I doing now to stop the violence and terror that is still being inflicted on communities of color. What more can a Memorial like this do than to make all of us repeat: Say Their Names, Never Again.

One Reply to “Say Their Names: The legacy of racial terror: Montgomery Alabama”

  1. Thanks, Sharon, for this entry. I definitely want to go there. My father witnessed a lynching in Salisbury, Md. in 1931. It was in the middle of the day, on the courthouse lawn. A mob took a man suspected of killing a white man out of the local hospital and dragged him to a tree in front of the courthouse. There was a huge crowd. My dad was 7 and never got over it. The next day the Salisbury Times said they weren’t going to write a story about it because “everyone knows what happened. We will just go back to being a harmonious community.” (paraphrase) Look for Wicomico County at the exhibit and the book by Sherilyn Ifill, Murder on the Courthouse Lawn.


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