Two Powerful Sites Challenge Larry Wheeler to Contemplate our Southern History

A visit to Montgomery, Alabama
by Larry Wheeler

I just returned from Montgomery, Alabama, where I visited the Legacy Museum and its affiliated National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Together, along with dozens of sites in the capital city, these tell the story of how slavery came to define the South, its past and present history and that of America, as well. The impact of the experience on me as a Southerner and an American was profoundly emotional, a reawakened awareness that brings both grief and guilt.

More than 835,000 African souls were auctioned in the South between 1804 and 1862, a preponderant number of them in Montgomery. The purpose, as we know, was to service the cotton plantations, the backbone of the Southern economy. We all know how the Civil War came to be. What we struggle to feel fully, however, is the impact that slavery had on individual human lives, our regional value and what it means to be Southern. African families were separated from one another, placed in chains, beaten to death. Those who survived the horrors of the Civil War era were often condemned to be victims of tyranny and terror that raged through the South for nearly a century more.

The new National Memorial for Peace and Justice tells this story poignantly. Opened in April 2018 on a six-acre site overlooking downtown Montgomery, the elegant, sweeping pavilion contains more than 800 six-foot Corten steel slabs, each representing a state and county, etched with the thousands of names of victims according to the location of the murders. They hang from above. One passes through and under this mass of hanging forms representing real human beings: between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,400 racially-motivated lynchings occurred in 12 Southern states, North Carolina among them. Most of these victims were murdered because of hearsay of insults to white people. One man was hanged in 1889 for frightening a white girl, another for asking a white woman for a drink of water. The lynchings were most often mob-induced spectacles attended by the community.

The aggregate impact of the memorial is to make us feel this history. And to be sure, the experience is emotional and transformative. The surrounding gardens offer necessary opportunities for reflection and meditation with powerful works by my friend Hank Willis Thomas, Kwame Akoto-Bamfo and Dana King, and stirring words by Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Alexander and Maya Angelou. As you might have guessed, I consider this to be one of the great memorials of the world and a must-do experience for every woman, man and child. On the taxi ride back to the hotel, I asked my African-American driver if he had been to the memorial. “No,” he said, “it would be too difficult to be reminded of the reality.”

The Legacy Museum, a short ride or a long walk from the Memorial, has been created within a warehouse near the river, where slaves were incarcerated before being distributed for sale by boat or rail. The museum was founded and funded by the Equal Justice Initiative, an extraordinary organization which explores racial inequality both in the past and in the contemporary world. It is not as an afterthought that we are reminded that six million black persons migrated out of the South between 1910 and 1940. Unnerving stories are told in dramatic and engaging ways. Holograms featuring first-person accounts of the enslaved and incarcerated, video, photographs documenting racial violence and, yes, of the lynchings, are woven into the interpretive presentations. But there are also recorded dance, music and art performances which help interpret the story. One cannot help leaving the museum or memorial without feeling that we must do more to seek the truth about racial inequality. It’s easy to get caught up in romanticizing the South and our culture. There is much to be proud of in the literature, music and all the arts. And we do raise up and honor the African Americans who helped to shape this culture. But when all is said and done, there is still the history, the struggle, the discrimination, the segregation and the terror. A quote by Maya Angelou on the wall of the museum confronts us: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” My trip to Montgomery reminded me. I recommend a visit to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. While you are in Montgomery, you can also visit the Rosa Parks Museum, Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Memorial Center. I encourage you to consult the websites and plan a visit.

There is a lot to think about in Montgomery. There is a lot to think about.