The list of petty transgressions used to justify the lynching of African-Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was cruelly and exhaustingly long. Caleb Gadly was lynched in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1894, for walking behind the wife of his white employer. David Walker was accused of using inappropriate language with a white woman in Hickman, Kentucky, in 1908; he, his wife, and their four children were lynched. Ballie Crutchfield, a woman, was lynched in Rome, Tennessee, in 1901, by a mob searching for her brother. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of white spectators would show up to watch. They wore their Sunday best, posed for photos with their children, ate snacks, and drank soda and lemonade. Afterward, the body might be dragged through the streets of black neighborhoods. Often, body parts were cut off and collected as souvenirs.
This week, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opens in Montgomery, Alabama. Designed and built by the legal-advocacy group the Equal Justice Initiative, or E.J.I., it is an outdoor exhibit devoted to victims of lynching. Eight hundred and five rusting steel columns are geometrically arranged on a grassy hill. Each column is inscribed with the names of lynching victims and the county in which they were murdered. The columns are suspended from the ceiling above them, starting at eye-level and then rising as the wooden floor slopes downward, evoking lifeless bodies hanging from trees. The accompanying Legacy Museum describes the history of American racial injustice, from enslavement to mass incarceration, and illustrates lesser-known aspects of that narrative, like the domestic slave trade.
Alabama, my home state, is a place obsessed with its history and its founding myths. Whenever I fly into Montgomery and get on I-85 to drive to my parents’ home, I pass a highway exit sign advertising the “First White House of the Confederacy,” the former residence of Jefferson Davis. On a recent drive to northern Alabama, I saw a Confederate flag flying near an off-ramp, planted there by an organization celebrating the descendants of Confederate veterans.
Yet the state, especially its capital, has often overlooked its slave-holding origins. In 1860, two-thirds of the Montgomery county population was enslaved. Downtown Montgomery was once the site of slave warehouses and markets. Enslaved people were unloaded on Commerce Street at one end on the Alabama River and marched to auctions in Court Square. In 2013, E.J.I. installed historical markers at both places,