There is a look of realization, followed by one of shame and embarrassment, that Michelle Browder has come to expect. With her company, More Than Tours, Browder leads visitors through the most famous, and infamous, civil rights sites in Montgomery, Alabama. On her tours, she tells stories that have been lost along the way. In March 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice and their Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration became part of her tours.
For the first time, many of her customers—from Montgomery and beyond—are learning how the sins of the past play a big role in how we think about race in the present.
“It’s like for the first time in their lives, it makes sense to them,” Browder said of her tour customers. “We’ve had some pretty remarkable conversations with people from all over, and not just white people, who were realizing for the first time how these things tied together.”
The two new attractions tell their stories in very different ways. The memorial, set on a hill a few blocks from downtown Montgomery, utilizes a powerful, haunting silence to communicate to visitors the prevalence of lynchings in the United States. Eight hundred steel columns are suspended from the ceiling, each one labeled with the name of a U.S. county and etched with the names of the lynching victims who were brutally killed there. It is vast and overwhelming by design. As visitors near the end, they are greeted with descriptions of the alleged “crimes” that led to many of the recorded lynchings. It’s a poignant reminder that the seemingly endless columns include victims who were children, victims who were denied due process and victims who were tortured and killed for so-called transgressions as minor as failing to call someone “sir.” EJI makes sure visitors walk away understanding the size of the death toll and the scope of the injustice.
The museum, located in an 11,000-square foot warehouse in downtown Montgomery, is a more tangible experience. Hard history feels close. The museum reclaims a space once used to warehouse enslaved people, and sits just a block away from what used to be one of the largest ports for trafficking them. Visitors encounter first-hand accounts from enslaved people depicted by actors. Then, they weave through a timeline of artifacts and statistics that carefully spell out the roots of white supremacy. Visitors see the connections between white supremacy and the many manifestations of legal and extralegal racial terror that have been used to uphold it (including slavery, lynching and police violence). Toward the end of the exhibit, they hear directly from incarcerated people, picking up a phone as though nothing but a glass partition separates them.
The exhibit is data-rich and highly educational. It is also an indictment of the way we typically learn about the United States’ history of racial injustice. To see the linear timeline on the museum’s guiding wall is to see a clear connection between past and present, but one that is new for many visitors. The road from slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow laws to the criminalization of black people makes perfect sense in context, and immediately exposes the miseducation that occurs when curricula leave out what happened between Emancipation and the civil rights movement.
“One of the first things we wanted to do was just educate people who might not have been exposed to this history,” said Jonathan Kubakundimana, who helped develop a learning curriculum that accompanies the museum and memorial experience. “We were very focused on creating a new consciousness about this history and helping people form a new relationship with it and the world we currently live in.”
They were stunned. They just kept saying over and over, ‘I had no idea.’
A number of student groups have been to the memorial and museum, and schools are starting to plan for trips this fall, developing their own curriculum plans and guidelines.
Browder estimated that she’s already personally taken more than 200 school-age children on tours that included EJI’s memorial and museum. She has spoken to uneasy parents who were struggling with how to prepare their kids for the painful images and history they were about to encounter.
“I always tell them to just focus on where we are today and relate it to current events, like the child separations happening at the border,” Browder said. “I haven’t had a young person yet who wasn’t very upset by what they’ve seen with our immigration troubles. It’s much easier for them to draw the line than most people realize. And it’s a way to make the experience real to them.”
Browder has witnessed what happens when that history isn’t properly taught, or when it is purposefully hidden. For example, she said a group of older, white women—women who had lived in Montgomery all of their lives and grew up in the days of Jim Crow—recently signed up for a tour. She took them to various “hidden” landmarks, such as the back doors to notable Montgomery stores—the doors black citizens were forced to use during segregation.
“They were stunned,” Browder said. “They just kept saying over and over, ‘I had no idea.’ One lady said, ‘You know, I always saw my maid sitting in the back of the kitchen eating alone, but it never dawned on me why.’ These sorts of things weren’t in the history books in Alabama. This history wasn’t taught. It’s so bad that even the people who lived it are unaware of it.”
Browder said she has watched people of all ages and races leave the memorial or museum with tears streaming.
“There’s just a lot of sadness, a lot of disbelief,” she said. “But it’s because it hit home for them, and they finally understood why a whole lot of things are the way they are.”
Tracing the History of Why Things Are the Way They Are
Founder Bryan Stevenson started his work at EJI as a lawyer defending inmates on death row—work that continues at EJI today. But he realized that the injustices he encountered day after day were, in his words, “symptoms of a larger disease.” Stevenson recognized that his clients were often victims of an American tradition of seeing human beings through the lens of racial difference. He recognized that progress would require more than people like him fighting for criminal justice reform; it would require a national reckoning that acknowledged the direct line between slavery and injustices faced by black people today.
Teachers have the opportunity to trace that history for students and to connect the past to the present. It doesn’t require a visit to the museum in Montgomery, but it does require confronting dark and often forgotten or intentionally omitted periods in U.S. history.
This isn’t meant to be shameful or hurtful. We’re talking about healing. We want young people in particular to engage and come away with a better understanding of the country they live in.
Schools, for example, rarely talk about the forms of legal and extralegal racialized social control that occurred between the era of slavery and the present-day era of mass incarceration. EJI has received special attention for their work in documenting one of those forms: lynchings.
Lynchings were violent enforcements of a social code that demanded black people treat their white neighbors with reverence and subservience. Without a trial or fair hearing, black people accused of breaking laws or social codes were dragged away by lynch mobs to be publicly tortured and killed. Victims were frequently hung for all to see. Photographs of lynchings show crowds with their necks craned, their faces upturned—the same posture visitors to the memorial have to take to read the victims’ names on the suspended columns.
Because they were so public, lynchings were a form of racial terror. They signaled to black and white people alike that, while the 13th and 14th Amendments may have ended slavery and granted black Americans citizenship, nowhere in the South did black people really have the rights to life and liberty outlined in the Constitution. Lynchings made it clear that there were two codes of justice in the United States. Some could kill with impunity, while others could be killed for imagined crimes.
In addition to lynching, the Legacy Museum teaches its visitors about other ways black people have been criminalized throughout U.S. history. For example, the so-called “black codes” were a series of laws passed after the Civil War that applied only to black people. Including offenses such as failing to carry proof of employment or owning a weapon, these laws exploited a loophole in the 13th Amendment—the outlawing of slavery “except as punishment of a crime”—to support the practice of convict leasing. Those who violated black codes were imprisoned and leased as unpaid labor to private enterprises, including mines and plantations, to work in a system that was essentially a perpetuation of slavery. This practice continued into the 1930s.
Even after convict leasing was eventually outlawed, Jim Crow laws were firmly in place; black citizens were still denied basic rights and subjected to strict laws that often singled them out for legal persecution. Those laws, along with segregation and a general mistreatment of black Americans by the country’s law enforcement agencies, continued unabated until 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But the ingrained biases and a chasm of mistrust that had opened between black communities and law enforcement remained.
Pushback against the civil rights movement, the Reagan-era War on Drugs and the Clinton-era “tough on crime” policies all capitalized on the same sort of racial anxiety and law-and-order justifications that occurred during Reconstruction. This cumulative history set the stage for our modern criminal justice system, which is more likely to kill unarmed black suspects, more likely to charge and convict innocent black people, and more likely to use the death penalty against them.
When Stevenson seeks justice for his clients, he knows they have centuries of history already stacked against them.
Bringing the Museum and Memorial Into the Classroom
Helping young people connect the historical mistreatment of black Americans to today’s racial injustices is a particular focus for the EJI team. Their staff worked with curriculum writers to develop detailed, Common Core-aligned lesson plans to help teachers prepare students for the history addressed by the museum and the memorial (see sidebar). With titles such as “Racial Terrorism and the Ideology of White Supremacy” and “Racial Terror and the Great Migration,” these lessons push beyond a black-and-white history; they work to move students toward a deeper understanding of how these injustices helped shape the criminal justice system in the United States. Educators can supplement these lessons with EJI’s interactive online timelines and maps.
“Students in an ideal world would know these things already and be able to recognize the through line,” said Kiara Boone, the deputy program manager for EJI’s memorial and museum. “We’re hoping this material could contextualize these experiences in today’s world. This isn’t meant to be shameful or hurtful. We’re talking about healing. We want young people in particular to engage and come away with a better understanding of the country they live in.”
Moon is an award-winning columnist and investigative reporter working in Montgomery, Alabama.
Teaching about the history of racial violence isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. Use these resources to bring the themes of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice into your classroom.
Common Core-aligned lesson plans based on the EJI reports Lynching in America and Slavery in America
An Outrage (includes viewer’s guide)
A 30-minute documentary introducing viewers to the devastating impact of lynching on families and communities
A comprehensive framework for teaching about white supremacy and American slavery
Classroom lessons and readings about the roots of mass incarceration, based on the book by Michelle Alexander
This toolkit—adapted from our viewer’s guide for An Outrage: A Documentary Film About Lynching in the American South—provides guidance for educators hoping to tackle this tough topic in the classroom