Eji lynching memorial a place of healing in the heart of dixie m gastrocnemius medialis

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One-hundred and fifty-seven years later, the Equal Justice Initiative has opened the Legacy Museum, a converted 19th-century slave warehouse Russell once walked past that traces the narrative of racial bias from slavery to modern day mass incarceration. Jars of soil from lynching sites bear victims’ names. Holograms of enslaved men and women behind bars describe being separated from their children. Virtual phone booths put visitors in front of inmates recounting the vestiges of slavery that exist in American prison systems today.

On a hill overlooking downtown, the names of 4,400 African-American lynching victims identified by a decade of EJI research are now blazed into 800 brown blocks of corpse-sized steel, organized by county and hanging overhead at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first lynching memorial.

It’s the loudest voice ever given to victims of American racial oppression, one speaking to the nation from the Heart of Dixie and one EJI and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson hopes can be a significant step toward healing a race-based divide that goes back centuries.

"It was a city shaped by slavery," Stevenson said, addressing the media in Montgomery on Monday when state offices were closed for Confederate Memorial Day. "Two-thirds of the people who lived here were enslaved. Lynching, we had one of the highest lynching rates in the region. Then of course the centrality of the civil rights era and now because Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, we’re at the heart of this current epidemic. So, I don’t think there’s a community that can claim more appropriateness for telling this history than this one."

In Germany, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and its 2,711 stark, concrete slabs offer scale to those seeking to understand the scope of the Holocaust. South Africa’s Apartheid Museum puts visitors in the shoes of those oppressed by the country’s previously state-sanctioned racial segregation.

“I’ve had a couple people tell me when they got to the memorial, ‘This is the first slave sculpture I’d ever seen in my life,’” Stevenson said. “We want everyone to understand this history. We are not defined by it, we are not doomed by it, but we cannot ignore it. We have to confront it. There’s a better America still waiting.”

Williams said he no longer fears whites, having discovered his own healing when he started a multiracial church north of St. Louis. But Williams also worked as a prison chaplain for six years, where he witnessed disparate sentences handed out to offenders whose only difference was skin color.

"The idea that the memorial is tying this into mass incarceration, I think it has to," Williams said. "If we don’t learn from this bias, wasn’t it the same thing where folks were the judge and jury when they hung people? Now they can’t lynch you, but they incarcerate you and lynch you that way."

The unspoken affliction of racial bias can be seen at the John Cochran Division of the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Health Care System. That’s where Ross leads a minority stress resilience group, one of only a few nationwide, that assists minority veterans in coping with race-based trauma.

"I may not have experienced slavery, or civil rights or Jim Crow, however, I am descended from those who had those experiences, and that impacts our cultural belief, our environment, our mental health and our physical health,” Ross said. “Those things are passed down from one generation to the next.”

From slavery to sharecropping, lynching to police brutality, segregation to redlining and gentrification, systemic biases have followed the personal biases through history, said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch.

"Even though we spend a lot of time now as a nation talking about how we heal these divisions and how we address them, we cannot do that if you don’t understand the history and how it has brought us to this point," Austin-Hellery said. "To that point, this museum will serve as a very, very useful tool, to educate and be a source for creating conversation."

From a health standpoint, a 2016 University of California, Berkeley study linked racial tensions to increased heart disease for both blacks and whites in counties where a decade of CDC circulatory disease data was compared to racial bias data.

Psychologically, the effects of lynchings and historical trauma impact all Americans, Stevenson said. For every white child that was brought by parents to witness a lynching was an African-American like Dee Bolling, who as a child tried to get the boots off his father Elmore Bolling’s corpse after the elder Bolling was lynched for his business success.

"I definitely do think there is a legacy of trauma,” Stevenson said. “When you are required to be silent about the things that terrify you and injure you and hurt you, that can be traumatizing. Once of the cruelest aspects of this era of racial terror lynching is that nobody was allowed to say anything.

“But I also think that taking a 5-year-old or an 8-year-old child to a lynching and being celebratory while a human being is burned alive or tortured or brutalized also has a legacy. It acculturates a way of thinking that if a person looks a certain way we don’t ever have to ever worry about the victimization. I think it’s fundamentally at odds with being a human." A much-needed conversation

The pendulum in Alabama’s capital city has swung from the slave trade through lynchings to the civil rights movement. Now armed with a memorial that puts America’s lynchings in the same conversation as genocide, Montgomery is at the forefront of overcoming that trauma and sharing that unfiltered history.

Montgomery’s seal defines the city as the “cradle of the Confederacy and birthplace of the civil rights movement.” The city flag features 11 stars, one for every state in the Confederacy. The first White House of the Confederacy is still in the city.

At Robert E. Lee High School, a statue of the general sits in front of the school and the students — 83 percent of which are black — walk past a sign which calls Lee “our beloved Confederate general and educator” and implores students to “never by word or deed do anything to discredit the name of this great man.”