Alabama lynching memorial aims to confront ramifications of slavery

The first national memorial for victims of lynching is expected to open in 2017 with a mission to help the U.S. confront its legacy of slavery.

The Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, would become the most comprehensive memorial for the thousands who were victims of "racial terror lynching," defined as "acts of violence that were done with complete impunity, where there was no risk of prosecution," according to Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson, an attorney and New York University Law School professor, who, with his nonprofit organization, has helped overturn more than 115 wrongfully convicted death row prisoners, said the United States has to "own up" more to its history of slavery.

"I think it's important because when you do that, you change your identity," Stevenson said. "You change your relationship to these histories of mass atrocities and violence. But when you don't do that, things linger. The smog created by that history of racial inequality continues to compromise our health. And in this country, we haven't done that about slavery. About lynching. About segregation."

EJI has documented more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950.

"We want to name the victims of lynching. We want to talk about people like Elizabeth Lawrence who was lynched because she scolded children for throwing stones at her. We want to talk about people who were lynched because they bumped accidentally into white people as they were going to the train station," Stevenson said. "We want to talk about all of the devastation. We want to talk about the fact that these lynchings took place in the public square with thousands of people cheering them on."

In conjunction with the memorial, the Equal Justice Initiative will also build a museum called From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration to help change the way people think about race in America.

Stevenson pointed to countries that have publicly confronted histories of tragic violence and division.

"When you go to South Africa, you are confronted with the legacy of apartheid. If you go to Rwanda, they make sure that you understand what genocide did," Stevenson said. "If you go to Germany, you can't actually go many places in Berlin without seeing the markers and the stones that have been placed at the homes of Jewish families that were abducted during the Holocaust. The Germans actually want you to go to Auschwitz to confront soberly that legacy."

While some might say the U.S. shouldn't dwell on the past, Stevenson argues that's not the issue at hand.

"In the South, the landscape is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. We love talking about mid-19th century history," Stevenson said. "In Montgomery, there are 59 markers and monuments to the Confederacy. Our two largest high schools are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. Jefferson Davis's birthday is a state holiday. We don't even have Martin Luther King Day -- it's Martin Luther King Day/Robert E. Lee Day. We are preoccupied with the mid-19th century history, but we won't talk about slavery. And that creates a problem."

So why don't Americans address this traumatic history? According to Stevenson, it's due to the "a narrative of denial."

"We've created a narrative that says we're not going to talk about the mistakes we make. We do the Olympics great, we do success great, we do pride great, we do victory great -- but we don't do mistake very well in this country," Stevenson said. "We don't do error very well. We have a hard time collectively saying, 'I'm sorry.' I think it's because we've become such a punitive society. We think if we own up to our mistakes, something bad is going to happen to us, we're going to get punished."

But the memorial and museum is not about punishment for Stevenson. It's to open dialogue about the challenges created by slavery.

"I want us to be liberated from the chains that this history has created," he said.