“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963
It is clear that this is a time of great tumult. Each day brings news of more unrest: COVID-19, economic uncertainty, racial injustice. In these moments, we turn to our mission that says, in part, that we “must show love and care in all of our actions, and enrich as many lives as possible.” In this spirit, over the coming weeks, we feel it is important to highlight organizations and people who are forging paths, new and old, towards a better world. Today we shine a light on an Alabama organization that speaks to justice while touching lives around the world.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) was founded over 30 years ago by attorney Bryan Stevenson as a nonprofit that provides legal representation to those who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. They work daily toward challenging the death penalty and excessive punishment as well as providing re-entry assistance to those who were formerly incarcerated. EJI has worked for decades to challenge prevailing narratives about race in America through extensive research, documentation and educational efforts. The organization has also created meaningful spaces, markers, and memorials to address this history of white supremacist violence.
In April of 2018, EJI opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama. It is built on the site of a former warehouse for the enslaved, a block from one of the busiest slave auction spaces in the country where tens of thousands of black people were trafficked during the 19th century. The Museum utilizes first-person accounts of slave trade, lynching, segregation, and Jim Crow to expose the long history of racism, tracing that story to mass incarceration and police violence in the present.
Along with the Legacy Museum, EJI also established The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018. It is America’s first memorial dedicated to lynchings and the trauma of white supremacist violence for the black community. While black Americans courageously mounted campaigns against lynching and sought refuge by fleeing the South, these lynchings left a legacy of terror in America, one we as a nation have never fully faced. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is located on a six-acre plot of land and uses art and innovative design to eloquently tell this difficult story, and in so doing, to challenge our ideas of ourselves.
The memorial square holds 800 six-foot corten steel monuments – one for every county in the United States where a documented racial terror lynching occurred. The names of the victims are engraved on the columns; in some cases, the columns indicate only “Unknown”. The names total in the thousands, all individuals murdered without the right to trial. As you walk through the memorial, the columns begin to rise gradually, symbolizing the act of hanging.
As you depart from the square, the exit pathway is lined with pillars identical to the ones hanging inside. The idea is that each county has the ability to eventually claim their monument as a step toward community dialogue and continuing efforts to face painful truths about racial history, injustice, and violence. Unclaimed monuments will remain as a silent witness to the places who are not ready or willing to confront the terror and violence in their history – and perhaps their present. According to EJI, the process of communities claiming their monuments is about more than transporting and installing the markers; it also requires communities to commit to sustained work that they may never have done in confronting racial history.
We are heartened that that work has begun in our own community. Local individuals and organizations, led by Project Say Something, have begun the process of bringing Lauderdale County’s steel monument from Montgomery to Florence. Alabama Chanin is proud to support this important work, begun years ago. We believe that it is time to face the historical reality of racism, so that we can move ahead together in justice and equality.
The museum and memorial are only part of the work that Equal Justice Initiative continues to do. The organization labors in numerous areas to advance justice, truth, and reconciliation around race in America. Director and founder Bryan Stevenson says, “Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
Learn more about the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice here. And visit the Equal Justice Initiative page to learn more and find how you can support their work. Beautiful photographs and information on the design of the National Memorial are available at Architectural Digest.
Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy is a must-read and available wherever you purchase your books. In 2019, it was developed into a film, starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, and includes powerful performances by Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson. Warner Brothers has made the film available to rent for free through the month of June across all digital platforms in an effort to “encourage you to learn more about our past and the countless injustices that have led us to where we are today.”
P.S.: This week, in the state of Alabama, three Confederate memorials have been removed from city centers. Led by the actions of Mayor Randall Woodfin in the City of Birmingham, Alabama, the cities of Montgomery and Huntsville have followed suit by choosing to dismantle and relocate these monuments. Due to state legislation, cities that remove monuments are hit with a $25,000 fine and face potential lawsuits from the state Attorney General.
Project Say Something has been working in our community to have our own Confederate monument, displayed in the heart of our downtown in Courthouse Square, relocated to the Soldiers Rest section of the Florence City Cemetery. You can learn more, donate, share, and/or support this effort here.