Peace and Justice in the Era of Mass Incarceration

Maggie Filler
May 3, 2018 · 8 min read

On the day that the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened, the sky showered Montgomery, Alabama with a steady rain, as if to cleanse the site and prepare it for visitors.

The next morning, the sun shone. The rain was a memory. I walked up the hill on Clayton Street, behind the Frank M. Johnson Courthouse where I had once worked as a law clerk, past a reentry house and a day reporting center for probationers, and then arrived at the country’s newest memorial: a memorial to the victims of lynchings.

A dark and angled tunnel serves as the passage onto the memorial grounds. The memorial rises before you the moment that you emerge from the relative darkness. It rests prominently on a hilltop, at once serene and sharply edged. To the right of the entryway, on a wall of wood slanted so that some light emanates through, are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice.”

Dr. King’s words could well be the thesis of the memorial, as well as the companion Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, both of which opened April 26 in downtown Montgomery. The memorial and museum are the brainchild of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization Stevenson founded and leads.

Stevenson began EJI to represent Alabama prisoners on death row. He pledged to represent anyone facing the death penalty without legal counsel. Over the years, EJI has overturned more than 75 death sentences and won landmark rulings from the United States Supreme Court to limit the barbaric practice of sentencing children to prison for life. In battling on behalf of individuals accused of crimes, Stevenson became convinced that the nation’s failure to reckon with its history of enslavement and racial terrorism lies at the root of modern-day racial oppression. He saw the lasting consequences of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow segregation in the courtrooms where he defended black, brown and poor clients against extreme punishments.

So Stevenson and the EJI attorneys immersed themselves in history. They revealed Montgomery’s former role as a major hub of the domestic slave trade. EJI forced the city to confront this history by identifying and marking significant slave trade locations throughout town. The Legacy Museum now occupies the site of a former slave warehouse. EJI attorneys also began conducting research into the lynchings that occurred throughout the southern states, unchecked, well into the twentieth century. The EJI team ultimately recorded over 4,000 such lynchings between 1877 and 1950. They estimate the true number is even higher.

The unique combination of this painstaking research and EJI’s front-line view of the criminal justice system make the museum and memorial spaces of healing and reflection, as well as an urgent call to action. Visitors to the new EJI landmarks walk a direct line from slavery, to lynching and racial terror, to segregation, to the mass incarceration of today.

The memorial contains three sculptures, the first of which is by the Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. The statue depicts enslaved men and woman tormented by their shackles and chains, but defiant. Rust-colored streaking on the statuary calls to mind tears and blood. Plaques opposite the sculpture explain that the myth of white superiority and black inferiority justified the inhuman treatment of slaves to the great profit of the emerging states.

The centerpiece of the memorial is its 800 steel monuments to the victims of lynching. There is one monument for each county where a lynching occurred. Each monument is engraved with the names of the victims of racial terror killed in that county.

At the opening ceremony for the memorial, Stevenson recounted the story of lynching victim Jesse Lee Bonds, who was shot, castrated, and dragged behind a truck after asking a white shopkeeper for a receipt. Bonds’ 98-year-old brother had never seen a tombstone or marker of any kind honoring his brother, until the lynching memorial opened with a monument bearing his brother’s name.

When you enter the memorial, the steel monuments are at eye-level, and the victims’ names are easy to decipher. As you move further into the memorial, the floor drops, and the massive pillars descend from the ceiling like so many hanging bodies or caskets. Ultimately, the monuments tower above you, as if from trees. Bold words call out, “For the Hanged and Beaten.”

Standing at the center of the memorial, in a patch of green surrounded by monuments on all sides, you are reminded that lynchings often occurred in town squares with thousands of witnesses. White residents of Paris, Texas lynched seventeen-year-old Henry Smith before a crowd of 10,000. The horror of being tormented and killed before so many blood-thirsty spectators is deeply unsettling. So, too, is the realization that the monuments are all around you, gazing in.

Next is a veritable graveyard of unclaimed caskets. Each of the engraved pillars has a counterpart here, the monuments arranged horizontally on the ground, side-by-side, uncomfortably close. Counties are encouraged to step forward, acknowledge the lynchings that occurred, and bring their county-specific monument home. In order to do so, the counties must agree to display the pillar in a prominent place, and they must make a commitment to the truth and reconciliation work EJI has begun.

The path through the memorial leads to another cluster of figures, this time a group of African American women participating in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dana King’s statue calls to mind the era of formalized racial segregation. The Legacy Museum contains an exhibit reproducing the the text of Jim Crow laws that dictated racial separation across nearly every facet of society. The visually arresting display stretches from floor to ceiling.

Continuing down the hilltop from the memorial, the third and final sculpture depicts a row of African Americans, their bodies encased in a single block, their arms thrust up to the sky. They gaze straight ahead at the hundreds of steel monuments memorializing lynching victims. As I faced this piece, by the sculptor Hank Willis Thomas, the modern protest cry against police brutality — “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot” — played on a loop in my mind. Thomas’s figures are simultaneously falling victim to the criminal justice system, marching in resistance, and honoring the thousands of lynching victims memorialized before them.

Throughout the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, signs declare that it is a sacred site. Faith leaders dedicated the site at daybreak on its opening day, and the singer Audra Day recorded a stirring rendition of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” within the memorial in a separate act of consecration. The memorial’s status as a sacred site is undeniable. The memorial’s inclusion of the victims of mass incarceration — EJI’s very clients — within the embrace of the sacred is revolutionary.

EJI’s memorial and museum do not merely inform visitors that mass incarceration is an evolution of slavery, they make this truth palpable. The Legacy Museum features familiar facts and figures demonstrating the monstrous scale of the prison system and its disproportionate impact on people of color. But the museum goes beyond these now familiar statistics. The Legacy Museum contains a replica of a prison visitation booth, complete with a list of harsh visitation regulations and a corded telephone. Visitors put the phone to their ear, and an EJI client appears by video in prison uniform to narrate her or his story of involvement in the criminal justice system. Enlarged letters from prisoners seeking legal assistance from EJI line the back wall of the museum. It is sobering to recall the similar letters lining my filing cabinets, and to re-conceive them as artifacts.

At one of several talks organized in connection with the opening of the memorial and museum, former EJI client and death-row exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton recalled a police detective advising him that because he was black and the judge and jury were white, his conviction was all but guaranteed. The detective was right, and Hinton spent three decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. Today, the Legacy Museum gift shop sells Hinton’s book, The Sun Does Shine, to museum visitors. When I visited, they were sold out.

Stevenson’s central innovation and driving purpose is the consistent linkage between the modern-day criminal justice system and our nation’s history of racism and racial oppression. With the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, Stevenson is making his case on a grand scale. He has marshaled convincing evidence that the country’s history of enslavement and racial terror is a direct cause of the severe racial inequity that exists throughout American society, and in the legal system most of all.

Why would he use this evidence to convince twelve jurors, when he could persuade the whole world?

I left the National Memorial for Peace and Justice the way I arrived. I passed the day reporting center for women and men on probation and parole, and then the reentry house. I continued along Clayton Street to the Frank M. Johnson Courthouse, where I had had my first job out of law school.

Inside the courthouse, a trial was underway. Two men had committed suicide in the Alabama Department of Correction, and the conditions of confinement for mentally ill prisoners were at issue. The courthouse has expanded since the Civil Rights era, but this particular trial occurred in the old part of the courthouse, where Judge Johnson himself once presided, and where Martin Luther King, Jr. once testified from the witness stand.

Right outside the courthouse is the former Greyhound bus station, where a white mob attacked Freedom Riders trying to desegregate interstate bus travel. Police officers stood by and refused to intervene. The bus station is now a museum; the vintage Greyhound bus sign adorning it, an artifact.

The courtroom contains its own historical artifact, a wide balcony for audience members. During segregation, white members of the audience sat on the ground level while African Americans observed court proceedings separately, from the balcony above.

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