A Trip to Montgomery

By Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA

 

I knew I was going to visit the National Lynching Memorial and I was prepared to be moved and informed.  But nothing prepared me for the life-, heart- and mind-changing experience that I had in Montgomery.  First of all, the Memorial is poignant, powerful, horrifying and spiritually rich.  It shocks and humbles.  It overwhelms. It chastens and ignites.  It reminds us of the unspeakable acts and behaviors that can be borne of ignorance, hate, irrational fear of the “other”, and tragically misguided attempts to maintain an evil and self-defeating status quo.  Beginning my tour of Montgomery at this sacred site was like a strong blow to the gut.  It knocks the wind out of you, makes you hunch over, sickens you.  And, by some masterful stroke, it has a kind of tragic beauty and grace, like a spiritual for the soul.  For me, the place brought to mind that other, European and Jewish Holocaust.  All I could think of was:  “How could this have happened?”   “And for so long, unabated?”  “Never again.”

 

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The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka the National Lynching Memorial)

 

As the day progressed, I and my team added to our education and revelation by visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s other extraordinary venue, The Legacy Museum. Unlike the deceptively simple, symbolic and deeply poetic Memorial, the Museum experience immerses visitors in the sinister reality and details, and the shameful history of “the peculiar institution” of slavery and the ensuing, insidious heritage of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and social injustice that marks all of us.  The scars on our national psyche and community corpus can never fully heal, as well they shouldn’t.  As with other sites of conscience, the most incisive and enduring injuries we suffer as visitors come from hearing the first person accounts of the victims.  Survivors of the physical, emotional and existential violence of racism and injustice are the most qualified to bear eloquent and dignified witness.  Their power is inescapable.  They provoke and command our deepest empathy.

 

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The Legacy Museum

 

The work of the Equal Justice Initiative, both through their free legal services and through the sites they have created and the programs they administer, is a miracle of intelligence, passion, perseverance and dedication.  They live what they believe to a degree rarely seen.  They are brilliant, strategic, indefatigable, and ethical to the maximum.  Of course, they are inspired and empowered by their founder and charismatic leader, Bryan Stevenson.  The well-known civil rights attorney and author of the bestselling book, “Just Mercy”, epitomizes what a truly enlightened and tireless civic activist and leader is and can do.  Our time meeting with him on the day we were in Montgomery was not just a treat, it was an honor.  His enthusiasm and intellect are infectious and ennobling.  He appears unstoppable and unyielding, yet joyful, in his fervor to inform, incite and spread the gospel of hope.

 

The other enormous surprise for me was the discovery that Montgomery is actually in some major ways a civil rights-themed city.  If there were a ‘company town’ of racial tension and the inspired attempts to face the real story full-on and by doing so begin the long road and hard work of reconciliation, Montgomery might very well be that place.  Where else, within the confines of a relatively small downtown can one find a Civil Rights Memorial Center, a Freedom Rides Museum, a National Voting Rights Museum, a Rosa Parks Museum, not to mention the First White House of the Confederacy?  The density of experiences offered to the visitor on this emotionally and ethically fraught topic and its associated themes, and the breadth and depth of storytelling, exposition and interpretation co-existing in one modest urban district must be unprecedented.

 

Go to Montgomery.  Bring your heart, your mind and your better self.  Your soul will thank you.  The trip will be its own reward.