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A New Tabernacle: Remembering Lynching in Montgomery, Alabama

In his September 2018 letter, MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander reflects on his recent visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Dedicated to the nearly 4,400 recorded victims of racial terror lynching, the memorial centers on hundreds of hanging columns, on which are inscribed the names of brutalized and murdered African Americans. As this installation assumes its place among the world’s most important monuments, Dr. Auslander considers the complex sources of its spiritual power and emotional impact.

Recently, I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama. Since it opened in April 2018, the memorial, constructed by the Equal JusticeNational Memorial to Peace and Justice Initiative on a six acre site in downtown Montgomery, has become one of the world’s most-discussed monuments. It memorializes approximately 4,400 people of color known to have been victims of lynching and racial terror in the United States, with an emphasis on the period between 1877 and 1950.

Within These Walls

The memorial park is walled off from the surrounding neighborhood, a storied community that played an important role in the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-1950s. As visitors enter into the enclosed space, they move upwards along a gradual curving path towards a large central structure atop a hill, within which we can already glimpse hundreds of hanging metal columns. Along the path, on the wall, we encounter thoughtful written commentaries contextualizing racial lynching in American history. In a broad sense, lynching can be defined as a killing by two or more persons outside of the sanction of law. Racial terror lynching, the subject of the memorial, are acts of murderous violence against persons of color with the specific intent of terrorizing, intimidating, and disempowering entire communities of color. (Some African Americans were lynched specifically for registering to vote, or refusing to step off the curb for an approaching white person.) Lynching, as we normally use the term, was a mass strategy of racial oppression in the decades following the end of Reconstruction, part and parcel of the emergence of institutions of white domination sometimes termed “slavery by another name.”

Walking along these walls up the path towards the lurking structure at its summit, it is hard not to be reminded of Golgotha or Calvary, the hill outside of Jerusalem’s ancient walls where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. The equation of lynching victims with the crucified Christ has a long history in African American thought, culminating in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetic couplet, “The lariat lynch-wish I deplored/The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.” Halfway up we encounter the first of three figurative sculpture groupings in the park. Nkyinkim (“Twisting”) by Ghanian sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo evokes the transatlantic slave trade through a circle of six African men and women chained together in contorted positions of torment. One crouching female figure is clearly pregnant, perhaps about to give birth. The imagery of pregnancy, picked up again much later in the memorial journey, evokes the many generations bound together by the shared legacies of enslavement, de jure and de facto.

Inside Four Chambers

At the hill’s apex we enter into a vast square-shaped structure, designed by MASS Design group of Boston. 805 metal columns, roughly the size of a coffin, hang vertically from the roof. On each is inscribed the name of a specific county within which lynchings are known to have been perpetrated. Also inscribed on a face of the column are the names of each person lynched within the county, arranged in chronological sequence. A light is positioned under each column, so that at night, the names are illuminated, a series of hundreds of memorial candles lit in memory against the encroaching darkness. At the center of the overall assemblage is an open empty space, the “Memorial Square,” evocative of the many town squares, often in front of county courthouses, where lynchings were performed as collective, violent affirmations of white supremacy at the visible seat of judicial and political authority.

When we first enter the structure, in the first of four chambers, the vertical columns essentially touch the floor, and we have the sense almost of confronting a person on the scaffold, a moment before their death. Later, the columns in effect seem to rise about us. Each column is hung from the same height, but since the flooring underneath tilts gradually downwards, visitors move from directly facing the names of the victims to walking underneath the hanging coffin-like structures. The name of each county is written at the column’s base, so one gradually moves from encounters with the horror of individual loss to a sense of the collective totality of these crimes against humanity. The vertical columns not only evoke hanging bodies but are stark reminders that those who perpetrated lynching often left their murdered victims hanging for days or weeks, forbidding their loved ones from cutting them down and giving them proper burials. As we descend through the structure, we come, in effect, to feel the burdensome weight of history, hanging over our heads.

Why the design choice not to list the victims in a vast common sequence, as in Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but rather in discrete groupings, county by county? The choice strikes me as appropriate, given that lynching was so often a county-level phenomena, through which local white elites, emerging out of the pre-Civil War “plantocracy,” and low-income white farmers and workers were united through common, sacrificial violence directed against African Americans. The county groupings also emphasize that the continuing mission of acknowledging and memorializing lynching, and facing up to the hard work of racial justice at the present moment, needs to be pursued county by county across the nation. Hancock County, Mississippi. Chatham County, North Carolina. Spencer County, Kentucky… Time and time again during our visit, we heard visitors remarking, with a degree of shock, as they encountered a county they knew or had friends in. The geographical specificity of the markers makes it harder to turn our eyes from acknowledging the horror: this thing took place here, and here, and here…

Taken as a whole, the central structure reminded me of a modern Tabernacle, evocative of the mobile sacred enclosure built by the Israelites after their escape from Egypt, centered on the Holy of Holies, within which the spirit of the Lord was sensed to be immanent. Now, instead of four columns holding up the inmost shelter, we are surrounded by hundreds of columns dedicated to the lost. In the center is the roofless square, within which we face upwards towards the ultimate altar, the sky itself. Within the structure’s final chambers, once the metal columns begin to hang above us, they are oddly beautiful, redolent perhaps of the pipes of an enormous church organ, or the soaring columns of a great cathedral.

As we descend through the third great hallway chamber under the lurking columns, now far above us, we encounter on the walls vertical signs, repeating the motif of the upright columns, telling us specific stories of actual mass murders, each one startling and unbearably painful. Along the wall of the fourth and final hallway chamber we come to an eternal waterfall, echoing the flowing waters of Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial down the street, dedicated to Dr. King’s beloved passage in the Book of Amos (5:24); “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” Across this waterfall are inscribed the words, “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynching, whose deaths cannot be documented, whose names will never be known. They are all honored here.”

From water, we move to earth. A glassed-in container holds soil from over two dozen sites where lynchings were committed. A sign invites members of the public to bring more such offerings back to the memorial. (Improbably, on the day we visited, a little green plant had taken root in the soil.)

A Sermon of Renewal

Finally we exit the structure and its long, hanging shadows and come back into the sunlight. We are greeted at this threshold by one of the most stunning passages in American letters, Baby Suggs sermon from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In a hidden grove of trees, Baby Suggs enjoins the enslaved to embrace their own bodily essence,

“And O my people out yonder. They do not love your neck unoosed and straight. So love your neck. Put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. All your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver-you got to love it. And the beating and living heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet, more than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life giving womb and your life giving private parts. Hear me now, love your heart, for this is the prize.”

National Memorial to Peace and JusticeRe-reading Morrison’s famous passage, it occurred to me that the entire tabernacle structure, divided as it is into four quadrants, could be conceived of as a vast four-chambered human heart, the beating essence of a vital American history so long denied. Perhaps we, as visitors, are akin to the nation’s lifeblood; subjected to almost unbearable pressure under the structure’s columns, we are then expelled, once more into the body politic, newly resolved to do the great work ahead.

Having pondered Baby Suggs’ sermon, we now enter an enormous field, where we encounter identical copies of the 805 coffin-size columns, made of oxidizing corten steel, each inscribed with names of the counties and the names of the lynching victims. Before we encountered them hanging vertically, but now they are neatly laid out horizontally, side by side. In a sense, we might think of them as moving from the initial state of torture and execution, swinging in the southern breeze, towards being honored in a vast, silent cemetery, as they are prepared for final internment.

The Equal Justice Initiative leaders have explained that they intend this section of the memorial to be temporary. Their hope is that, in time, each county in which lynchings took place will officially collect their memorial column, and install it in a place of honor, perhaps at an actual lynching site or within the county courthouse square. Laid out neatly in row after row after row, the columns struck me as little airplanes waiting patiently to take wing, hoping, after their long exile, to at long last return home.

At the end of the field of coffins, we encounter a memorial grove dedicated to the great anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Welles, and the memorial’s second sculptural group, this one by Dana King, dedicated to the women of the Montgomery bus boycott, which launched the modern Civil Rights movement. Here, three black women of varied ages walk forward with determination, emphatically not riding segregated bus lines to and from work. In what I take to be an echo of the crouching figure in Kwame Akofo-Bamfo’s assemblage, one of the women is visibly pregnant. Another life about to be born. Defying generations of unspeakable suffering and oppression, the struggle continues. Will the circle be unbroken? Appropriately, these marching figures overlook the very neighborhood where early organizing for the boycott took place. The memorial is national, even global, in its scope as an international site of conscience. But it is also deeply rooted, in a here-and-now place, in a specific community with a deep history and continuing local struggles.

As we descend the hill on a zig-zagged path, we come to the third sculptural grouping, Hank Willis Thomas’ Rise Up. Emerging out of a wall, facing the central structure of the hanging columns, are black heads and raised arms. The initial version of the piece was inspired by Ernest Cole’s famous apartheid-era photograph of black South African miners undergoing a humiliating medical examination. Here it is re-tasked to a mission closer to home. Signage explicitly references the daily oppression experienced by African Americans through unjust police shootings and the continuing prison-industrial system, a historical legacy, it is suggested, of slavery itself. (This point is reiterated in the associated Legacy Museum, which argues that the penal agriculture system re-instituted “slavery by another name” throughout the American South.)

Comparing Memorials

Inevitably, comparisons are drawn to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the nation’s leading memorial, which similarly seeks to honor the dead through unadorned inscriptions of their names. Among other things, both memorials continue to grapple rather uneasily, with the relationship between a central abstract installation and rather peripheral figurative sculptures, which border, in some instances, on kitsch. At the outskirts if the Vietnam memorial stands Fredrick Hart’s Three Soldiers sculpture, added on amidst much controversy. This figurative work, entirely subsumed within the overwhelming penumbra of The Wall, now seems a minor footnote to what is arguably the nation’s preeminent sacred space. Similarly the three sculptural groupings encircling the hilltop tabernacle of the lynching memorial are forever in the shadow of the enormous emotive power of the hanging columns, which sear themselves into the memory of each visitor.

I am particularly interested in how both memorials make use of the experience of ascent and descent, through which the traveling body of the visitor becomes necessary to the overall encounter with death, loss, memory, and perhaps rebirth. In the Vietnam memorial, we gradually descend into the earth, into the solemn, dark domain of the Dead, and then slowly emerge upwards once more. Having come out, in effect, up from within the ground, we see once more the gleaming alabaster buildings and monuments of Washington D.C, jutting towards the sky in Olympian splendor. Everything now looks the same, and everything looks different.

At the Montgomery memorial, we first ascend up a hill, towards the symbolic place of martyrdom, and then we descend slowly within the tabernacle, under the sheltering weight of the hanging columns and all those names, finally coming to the soothing flow of the wall of water. Once again, we enter into the earth, into the other worldly home of the Dead, including those, we are reminded, whose names we will never know. We are taken into a cavern, a place of simultaneous endings and beginnings, a kind of cosmic womb within which we must reflect upon our nation’s greatest moral failings and where we must start to ponder how we will undertake, individually and collectively, the necessary work of social repair.

Final Offerings

As we all know, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial quickly became a living spontaneous memorial, to which untold thousands, without any bidding, have brought countless offerings—flowers, medals of valor, letters to the fallen, and works of art—lain carefully under the inscribed names of the Dead. The lynching memorial does invite the public to bring offerings of soil to that small box, but I haven’t yet seen any spontaneous offerings placed under the hanging columns and the names themselves. Somehow, such acts would, I suspect, seem entirely out of place. The real work of remembrance, as difficult as it is, will take place after the visit, returning back to our own counties, and convincing local leaders and fellow citizens to assume the mantle of historical responsibility, to acknowledge the sins of the past and transport the waiting column coffin back home from Montgomery to its final, proper resting place.

The hilltop enclosure is a kind of sacred grove, evoking the mythic forest in which Baby Suggs lovingly ministered to the oppressed. Each upright column hangs forever like a tree torn brutally from its roots. Our most important offerings to this tabernacle can’t really take place within it, but only back in our home places, as we replant our own particular tree of memory in native soil, wait for it take root, and discover together what the future might bring.