The flashes of green blurred past my window. They were the highway signs of the southern cities – Newnan, LaGrange, Opelika – dotting the 160-mile drive from Atlanta from Montgomery. In years past, I would’ve pulled off at one of Interstate 85’s exits to grab some discount bottle rockets for the Fourth of July. But this year things seemed different.
I didn’t feel like lighting up the night sky. Nor was I in the mood to watch parades, salute the flag, or sing the Star-Spangled Banner. Across the country, many civic-minded people couldn’t imagine celebrating like usual. To do so felt incongruous at a time when our country is more divided than at any point in my lifetime, a time when families are being separated at the border, when the slow-but-steady march toward civil rights has screeched to a halt. Instead of dressing in red, white, or blue, I wore muted colors to the site of America’s new lynching memorial.
This past spring the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal nonprofit based in Alabama’s state capital, opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to remember thousands of America’s lynching victims, along with a museum to provide context of how those deaths fit into our nation’s broader history of racial injustice. In a city once home to one of the nation’s largest slave markets, the memorial now stands as a safe, sacred site to acknowledge our nation’s haunted past.
“You can’t get to redemption, you can't get to salvation, unless there’s a point of confession,” Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the EJI, told members of Montgomery’s oldest black church just after the memorial opened. “We're confessing our history over there.”
If we truly confessed, as Stevenson suggested, we’d spend the Fourth confronting the messy set of contradictions that define our nation. We’d wrestle with the injustices that strip many Americans of their full freedoms. We’d stop pressuring other countries to uphold democratic principles without fully abiding by those same rules. And we’d examine the complexities of the United States, past and present, even if it’s at times a painful exercise. Easier said than done, considering our collective love of getting day drunk and binge-eating processed meats.
Throughout the South, where I’ve written about everything from black church burnings to KKK rallies, I’ve often noticed the resistance to complexity play out in the prickly fight over the future of Confederate symbols. Indeed, some towns have built new monuments to slavery next to the older ones in an effort to recontextualize history. But in many towns, the old symbols of Confederacy have either remained standing or have been torn down by activists or officials. The divisive debate is continuing to play out in the gubernatorial race in Georgia, where I live, regarding one of the world’s largest Confederate monuments.
My trip to Montgomery wasn’t in search of a protest, or a grand gesture of how to celebrate Independence Day, but in search of a chance to wrestle with those messy contradictions that get ignored on the Fourth. Instead of scrolling through Facebook, watching friends cheer or criticize the state of our nation, I unplugged in hopes of better understanding how our longstanding history of racial equality has robbed millions of their freedom. Rather than light sparklers or lounge on the beach, I wanted to reflect on how our national pride often stands at odds with our long, dark history of white supremacy. An afternoon of reflection, I knew, wouldn’t change much, but it felt better than the alternative.
Before the lynching memorial, I wandered around with four of my friends through Montgomery’s eerily quiet streets. Most of the restaurants downtown were closed, as were many of the tourist attractions, including the Freedom Rides Museum. As we walked around, a few tourists read about the city’s old slave market, across the street from where seamstress Rosa Parks boarded the bus that would help launch the Civil Rights Movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit devoted to identifying hate groups, is two blocks away from the first White House of the Confederacy. And a half-mile from the Alabama State Capitol, where a statue of Jefferson Davis still stands, the Equal Justice Initiative operates its Legacy Museum, a powerful exhibit intended to change the narrative of race about America.
A steady stream of visitors, mostly black families, filed through the metal detectors with their tickets. Built on the site of a former slave warehouse, the museum the drew the arc from enslavement to mass incarceration. Starting with the 12 million people captured during the transatlantic slave trade, the exhibit moved forward through the ways that slavery morphed into subsequent forms of racial injustice from convict labor camps to the lynchings that helped spark the Great Migration. Each era was accompanied by a striking collection of visuals: Newspaper ads offering rewards for runaway slaves; “whites only” signs taken from pools and parks; handwritten letters that inmates sent to Stevenson, a criminal defense lawyer who has helped more than 125 prisoners avoid execution.
In the middle of the museum, near photos of lynching and filmed interviews of descendants impacted by those crimes, hundreds of glass jars rested on a wall of shelves. Each was full of soil carried from the counties where bodies once hung in front of angry mobs — including one bearing the name of Austin Callaway, a black man who was killed on September 8, 1940. Six white men had pulled him out a jail where he was being held for allegedly assaulting a white woman. He was found dead in LaGrange, Georgia, one of towns I passed on the road to Montgomery.
The soil within these jars, part of more than 4,400 lynchings EJI has documented, is intended to show the history of what many would like to forget. For decades some southern educators taught the South fought over states rights instead of slavery. In recent years, educators in states like Texas, have stripped Jim Crow laws or the Ku Klux Klan out from textbooks. The erasure of America’s true history isn’t just a southern dilemma, either. The history teachers at my mostly-white high school in Chicago’s suburbs taught about the Civil War, but didn’t delve deep into the terror that prompted so many black people to flee to my hometown during the 20th century. My textbooks failed to mention how, even in northern states, lynchings still happened. (The EJI has documented 56 across the state — including one, where I grew up, in Cook County.)
In my first month in Atlanta, back in 2006, I had joined the rowing team at Emory University, which had a boathouse on the lake at Stone Mountain Park. In the dark before dawn, we would drive out to the state park, place the boats in the lake, and pull our oars through those calm waters. By the time sun rose over Stone Mountain itself, I could see the massive bas-relief sculpture carved into its side, depicting Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson riding horses. On my first few visits, I kept my focus on rowing instead of the legacy of the carving that spans two acres, marking not just the Confederate generals, but also the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan.
Having spent more time at Stone Mountain, which today lies in the middle of one of metro Atlanta’s most diverse pockets, I’ve watched all kinds of plans arise for the future of the how we remember its past. There’s a pledge, from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, to sandblast the carving if she’s elected. There’s a plan, from park officials, to place a bell tower at the top of Stone Mountain in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous call to “let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.” There’s also a proposal, from an animation director who started a MoveOn.org petition, to carve OutKast riding in a Cadillac next to the Confederate generals. And then there are, naturally, plans to keep Stone Mountain as it is today, a tribute to Confederacy.
Walking up toward the lynching memorial, I stared at the 800 rusted steel pillars, each as tall as a man. They each represented a county where a lynching occurred from 1877 to 1950. A Each one was marked with the names of those killed. I scanned the names engraved on the pillars — seeing ones from Texas and Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama — trying to keep a tally. But I quickly lost count.
A friendly staffer helped me find the pillar for DeKalb County, Georgia, where I saw that four people had been lynched. At first glance, the steel pillars seemed to be fixed to wooden floorboards. After walking past the first set of pillars, the ground sloped downward. I noticed they weren’t attached to the ground, but suspended from the ceiling, each one hanging high higher than the last. Eventually, I had no choice but to look up, finding that each one seemed like a body hanging by a thread, much like a lynching.
Staring at the pillars overhead, my partner told me that she felt as if each pillar could fall on us at any given moment, an architectural design intended to make us feel the weight of fearing death constantly for the slightest of actions or accusations: for drinking water, for standing, for walking, for writing, for voting, for complaining, for not calling a white officer “mister,” for allowing a white man to win in a fight, for frightening a white girl.
In the final hall of the memorial, water trickled down a black wall, which echoed throughout this part of the memorial, dedicated to the unknown victims of lynchings. When I couldn’t stare up any longer, I looked over to a nearby wall. The inscription read: For the hanged and beaten. For the shot, drowned, and burned. For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized. For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember. As I sat there, a black woman walked by, holding her cell phone out in front of her face, using FaceTime to share the memorial with a friend who couldn’t make it to Montgomery.
My friends and I did catch some fireworks in Montgomery; it was unavoidable, unless we wanted to close our eyes, plug our ears, and fumble through the dark. On the drive back home, passing through the smoky haze, I thought about a pastor I had met on the Fourth of July three years ago. His name was Cleveland Hodby III. On July 4, 2015, I had driven up to Knoxville to attend Sunday service at his church shortly after someone set fire to his sanctuary, part of a string of fires set to black churches in the South. The church was damaged, but not enough to shut it down. That morning, Hodby courageously preached, posing afterwards for portrait in front of a scorched door. He refused to give in to what he called the “ultimate act of cowardice.”
And I thought about the final wall of the EJI’s Legacy Museum, which featured a series of photos – some of slaves, others of inmates. Below the images were a set of simple and bold questions: What should be done about the lack of recognition of slavery? Should very young children be prosecuted as adults? Should state governments execute some incarcerated prisoners? Do churches and people of faith have a special obligation to address the history of racial inequity? Here, at end of the exhibit, EJI provided visitors resources regarding what they could do next. They could register to vote, advocate for issues, volunteer for causes.
One of my friends who made the trip, a native of eastern Tennessee, talked about bringing a pillar identical to the ones at the memorial back to her hometown. She had mentioned that, growing up, some adults took pride in the fact that no lynchings had happened in their county, even though some had many years earlier. By having a marker, she wondered, might her hometown be able to, as Stevenson said, confess its history? It felt impossibly small, the idea of a marker meant to encapsulate so much history that might never be truly accounted for.
Crossing back into Georgia, LaGrange’s green highway blurred past my window again. I thought of the police chief there, who last year apologized for Austin Callaway’s lynching, and how it once must’ve seemed impossible for LaGrange, in the heart of a deep red Georgia county, to confront its history of racial injustice. These baby steps toward truth and reconciliation were a start, but then I remembered how long it took for an apology: 77 years. Who would be alive if we once again waited that long?