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At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, a Lesson in Memory and Responsibility

Individual acts of violence are horrifying, but coordination of violent action and inaction necessitated the infrastructure that allowed it to happen

Ari Y. Kelman
April 30, 2018
Ari Y. Kelman
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in AlabamaAri Y. Kelman
Ari Y. Kelman
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in AlabamaAri Y. Kelman

Last week, I had the chance to attend the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. The Memorial and the museum that serves as its ideological sibling are the products of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based organization committed to bringing justice to those wrongly incarcerated or sentenced.

I was there at the invitation of Rabbi Michael Lezak, the rabbi at San Francisco’s social-justice powerhouse Glide Memorial Church, who gave four Stanford students and me the opportunity to join him and his staff on their trip. During a group processing session at the end of the day, Rabbi Lezak said that he felt like he’d been to the “American Auschwitz.”

I was surprised by the locution, but—having recently visited the site of the infamous concentration camp—his words struck me as accurate, and meaningful.

I had learned all about the Holocaust in school, and I’d visited Wansee and Yad Vashem. But when I visited the place itself in 2013, I was not quite prepared for how big it was, how vast and orderly the space, and, though I knew about the Nazi genocide machine, it was the first time that I understood, deeply, just how systematic and well-organized the plans must have been to carry out murder on that scale. As we walked around the ground, my mind kept returning to questions about the logistics and operations that the violence would have required. People carried out the violence, but the Holocaust needed infrastructure.

Lynching is a different kind of crime. Though widespread throughout the American South from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, lynching is a far more individualized, intimate act of violence. But the intimacy of the violence should not obscure the fact that the Memorial lays bare: American race-based violence, too, required infrastructure.

In the US context, the necessary operations for racial violence did not take the form of trains and tracks and barracks—though those, too, fueled the slave economy that laid the groundwork for racism that followed. Rather, it was the nearly invisible influence of law and local custom that made these acts of violence possible. White folks knew they would not be punished for their crimes and, in many cases, acted with the permission of local and state leadership.

As I walked the Memorial, I was struck by this again: Individual acts of violence are horrifying, but coordination of violent action and inaction necessitated infrastructure both visible and invisible that allowed it to happen and helped it to continue.

This is part of the story of the Memorial. It is organized around the coffin-sized rusticated metal boxes, each of which bears the name of a county in which lynchings took place, in addition to the names of those who were victims of the crime. Some bore only a single name, while others had long lists represented in type barely large enough to read.

As you enter, you stand face-to face with these boxes, spaced at intervals regular enough to walk through, to confront, to read and touch, or walk around as one would headstones in a cemetery. Or a forest of trees. As one moves through the Memorial, the floor slopes downward until the metal boxes hang at shoulder height, then head high, and then overhead, putting you into the very uncomfortable position of those who would have attended the lynchings to watch, to celebrate, to picnic, or to commit a very public kind of murder.

Though evocative of bodies, the boxes do not represent individuals — they represent the counties where the violence took place, where the violence was tolerated, sanctioned, and even perpetrated by the local government. The bottoms of the hanging monuments reveal the names of the counties where the murders took place. From that vantage point, beneath the hanging boxes, the names of the people are barely visible, but the names of the places are clear.

As I walked through, the sparse conversation that I heard mostly revolved around people trying to identify the counties. “Where is Calhoun County, again? Is it out by Mississippi?” “Taliero? I think that is the smallest county in Georgia” (It had the names of two victims). Two older African American women were trying to find the county where their families had been from.

The further one goes into the memorial, the more densely packed the boxes become, until they are handing practically one next to the other. It is kind of like history itself: The deeper you get into the stories, the more dense they become—and the heavier the burden.

What I felt was the weight of the history. I was not most burdened by the weight of individual murders carried out in the name of terror and white supremacy—though I felt that too. Rather, it was the names of the counties that stuck with me: Twiggs (5 people). Holmes (10 people). Texas Parish (29 people). The county-level organization turned my mind to the role of the state in all of this. Lynchings required proximity between victimizer and victim, but they were sanctioned, supported, tolerated, and sometimes encouraged by those in power. And if local and state governments did not support the violence, most did as little as possible to investigate it and nothing to prosecute it when it happened.

The violence perpetrated by individual people against individual people is truly horrifying. But there is something even more morally unthinkable—even more unconscionable—about complex state structures built specifically to sustain systematic violence. At Auschwitz, it presented itself to me in the forms of the miles of train track, the orderly barracks, the cleared forest. At the Memorial, it appeared in the names of the counties that enabled the violence to take place and the laws that made its persecution impossible.

Jews know from memorials like they know from state-sponsored violence, and state-sponsored violence demands state-sponsored redress. Rabbi Sharon Brous articulated this beautifully in a recent op-ed arguing for why Jews should support the case for reparations. I agree, but not—as Brous argued—because the Bible tells me so. I agree because to feel the burden of history is not just to acknowledge it but to accept what it demands of us. Of me.

During the decades in which lynchings were most active, they took place at an average of two per week, a statistic that is eerily echoed in current statistics about the killings of unarmed African American men by police.

To walk below each of those monuments is to feel the weight of that history. We all bear that burden whether we want to or not. When we deny it, we participate in perpetuating the myths and falsehoods that led to it in the first place. When we start to look, it should become harder to look away and harder still to shrug it off.

Ari Y. Kelman is Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.