Many nations with atrocities in their past—Germany, Rwanda, South Africa—prominently recognize their painful history with memorials, museums, and monuments. It helps with healing.
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought attention to America’s ongoing problem of racial violence. But even today, the nation is largely silent about one of its historical periods of shame: the thousands of lynchings that terrorized southern blacks right up until the Civil Rights era.
A new building project is designed to break this national silence.
The Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama organization led by civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, has, for the last few years, been working to place historical markers at lynching sites all around the country. At TED’s conference this week, the group showed a sneak preview of plans for a new national memorial to the victims of lynching that they hope to break ground on some time this year in Montgomery, Alabama.
"In America, we’re not free. We are burdened by a history of racial inequality and injustice. It compromises us. It constrains us," says Stevenson. "We have to create a new relationship with this history."
Michael Murphy, an architect and founder of the MASS Design Group, gave a talk that highlighted his design for the memorial. It features a facade that evokes a classical structure, like the Parthenon or St. Paul's cathedral at the Vatican. But once inside, the ground would drop. Columns hanging feet from the floor would evoke the lynchings; each column would have names of known victims engraved. Outside would be a field of temporary columns, and each column would be filled with actual soil from individual Southern cities and towns that were sites of lynchings. If and when those cities and towns decided it was time to acknowledge their history, they could take the column to use it as their own monument, linking the larger museum with smaller remembrances across the country.
The project leaders need to raise $5 million to build the memorial and hope to raise another $5 million for a museum on the site. They expect the idea to stir up some resistance and discomfort, Murphy says, and—despite presenting at TED—aren’t quite ready to present the full details for another few weeks (or the renderings in Murphy’s presentation).
The larger hope is that a national memorial could help start to heal the wounds that a legacy of segregation, discrimination, and racial terror has inflicted. Stevenson wants the monument to be in the South—rather than, say, in Washington, D.C.—in part because he hopes that the millions of African American "exiles" (and their descendants) who fled to northern cities to escape racial violence have a positive reason to return and visit.
"It’s a place that will be beautiful. It’s a place," says Stevenson, "that will tell a hard but a necessary story."
All Photos: TED 2016