As a white nationalist says President Trump incited him to shove a black female protester at a campaign rally last March, a new museum in Montgomery, Alabama aims to advance truth and reconciliation while addressing the often unspoken reality of racial horror in America.
Burning black people alive, hanging them, mutilating their bodies — the graphic history of U.S. racial violence is a shameful and difficult thing to confront, says Equal Justice Initiative founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson, adding racially-driven hatred present today is “a manifestation of our failure to deal effectively” with that past.
Stevenson has dedicated his life’s work as a public interest lawyer with Equal Justice Initiative to helping the poor, incarcerated and condemned. Stevenson and EJI’s mission goes a step further, though, as the Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit looks to challenge the legacy of racial inequality in America.
EJI recently reaffirmed this commitment when their planned African American history museum, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” broke ground this month. The museum is expected to open in April of 2018.
“We have been thinking about the absence of meaningful spaces in America that deal with the history of slavery or the history of lynching for quite some time,” says Stevenson. “I think we’re at a point where we have to have the courage to talk about all parts of our history and I’ve been very excited by that.”
Montgomery has long bared the scars of America’s slavery era. EJI shined light on these elements of Montgomery’s past in 2013 when they published a report on slavery in America and added three new city markers noting the Alabama capital’s role in the domestic slave trade. When EJI led the charge for these Montgomery additions there were about 50 markers describing the city’s confederate history, and one dedicated to its part in the Civil Rights Era.
“I think it’s a difficult thing to confront,” says Stevenson, when asked why what he calls a “knowledge gap” around America’s history of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow continues to persist. “What we did in America during the time of enslavement was horrific, and it was easier for some people to forget about it, not talk about it, not deal with it, then to confront it. Unfortunately, because that narrative of racial difference was so destructive — because we didn’t deal with it — we then saw decades of exploitation and violence.”
The “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” museum — which will be constructed on the site of an old slave warehouse, will incorporate human narratives from slavery and Jim Crow eras, as a way to make this historic chapter “more human, more accessible,” says Stevenson.
The exhibits will include accounts of those who were trafficked during the slave trade, and others returning to sites where their parents and grandparents were lynched. The museum will also feature interactive elements and recording spaces where Stevenson says people will have the opportunity to “reflect in a personal way.”
“We see this as a tool for advancing truth and reconciliation in America, but we can’t get to reconciliation and repair without truth,” says Stevenson. “And that’s why this project is so important.”
Stevenson, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1985, got his start as public interest lawyer working for the Southern Center for Human Rights out of a publicly-funded center based in Montgomery focused on death-penalty defense. When Congress eliminated funding for death-penalty defense for lower income people in 1994, Stevenson turned the center into the Equal Justice Initiative — using money awarded to him through a MacArthur grant as early-on funding.
Today, Stevenson is one of the nation’s leading civil rights activists when it comes to the enlightened retelling of America’s racial history. In 2014, he published the “Just Mercy,” which won the Carnegie Medal for Nonfiction and was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Stevenson was also featured in Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed documentary “13th,” focused on the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States.
“2016 was an unprecedented year for hate,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow and editor of the Intelligence Report. “The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we’ve made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists.”
When it comes to discussing white supremacy and white nationalism, Stevenson says he doesn’t view recent trends as a resurgence, but rather an outcome of our collective, practiced denial around America’s past.
“We spent a lot of time treating the symptoms instead of dealing with the disease,” says Stevenson. “When you allow yourself to be governed by fear and anger, you tolerate inequality, you tolerate injustice, you tolerate unfairness. Everywhere in the world is the risk that fear and anger can turn into oppression and abuse, and we shouldn’t think we’re immune to that in America just because we’re the kind of democracy we are.”
When asked whether the “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” museum felt more pressing in the context of Sessions’ rise to U.S. attorney general, Stevenson noted this work has always felt necessary and urgent, but expressed concern around the use of law and order talking points.
“When I hear people using the rhetoric of law and order that might lead to further marginalization of people of color, further abuse of disfavored groups, then it strikes me that this kind of project is especially urgent,” says Stevenson. “I just think that we need to understand what power unconstrained by a commitment to fair justice and fair treatment can do to people. That was certainly true of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow … and we shouldn’t think that it can never be true again.”