The experience takes your breath away. I am in Montgomery to give the commencement address at Huntingdon College on May 5, but today am visiting the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This monument to the victims of lynching stands in stark contrast to the Confederate memorials that populate the city.
The brainchild of Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who leads the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal-advocacy organization, visitors come face to face with the fact that more than 4,400 African-Americans were hung, shot, beaten, drowned, and burned alive from after the Civil War through 1950.
Stevenson believes Germany has come to terms with the evils of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews, and South Africa has sought to be accountable for apartheid, but the United States has never come to terms with its racism that resulted in the fury of lynching. He declares that America cannot get to its own truth and reconciliation until it first tells the truth about its racial terror. As visitors gradually descend into the memorial, 800 rust-colored columns hanging above them suggests the awfulness of the hangings.
I have come to the city of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. before, but I come this time with fresh eyes because of writing American Ulysses. Through writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln I thought I knew the General who led the Union armies to victory in the Civil War, but I did not know the President Grant who stood up strongly for the rights of African-Americans.
I did not know that Grant, not Barack Obama, was the first American president elected with a non-white majority. He only won the popular vote in 1868 because 400,000 African-Americans voted for him.
I did not know his Republican Party, after passing the Reconstruction amendments–13th, 14th, and 15th–walked away from enforcing them.
I did not know how Grant took on the Ku Klux Klan after he learned that their members, when arrested and charged in southern courts, were almost always acquitted.
I did not know that Grant faced furious criticism when he decided to use the power of the federal government and the military to try to bring justice in the face of the lynchings and beatings in the 1860s and 1970s.
Upon Grant’s reelection in 1872, a group of African-Americans came to the White House to thank him. He responded, “A ticket on a railroad or other conveyance should entitle you to tall that it does other men.” In that spirit, he told them, “I wish every voter of the United States should stand in all respects alike. It must come.”
For more information on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice visit https://eji.org/national-lynching-memorial.