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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Alabama pays tribute to victims of racial lynchings

Por Jade

In a plain brown building, there is an office belonging to the Board of Pardons and Parole of Alabama, a place for people who have assumed responsibility for their crimes and expressed due repentance. A few meters away there is another type of rehabilitation center, for a country that has not been required to comply closely with the same standards.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened on a two-hectare site overlooking the state capital of Alabama, is dedicated to the victims of white supremacists in the United States. And it calls for an awareness of one of the least recognized atrocities in the country: the lynching of thousands of black people in a campaign of decades of racist terrorism.

In the center there is a gloomy cloister, a space with 800 aged steel columns hanging from a ceiling. In each column is engraved the name of a county of the United States and that of the people who were lynched there, mostly mentioned by name but many simply with the word "unknown". At first one has the columns at eye level, like the tombstones that lynch victims rarely receive. But as you move forward, the floor gradually descends and, by the time you reach the end, the columns hang high, leaving one in the same position as the insensitive spectators of the old photographs of public lynchings.

The magnitude of the killing is heartbreaking, all the more so when accompanied by the circumstances of the lynchings, some of which are described in brief summaries throughout the walk: Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying the photograph of a White woman; Caleb Gadly, hung in Kentucky in 1894 for "walking behind the wife of his white employer"; Mary Turner, who after denouncing the lynching of her husband by a violent mob of whites, was hung upside down, burned and then disembowelled until the child she carried in her belly fell to the ground. There is nothing like this in the country. That is the point in question.

"Just seeing the names of all those people ..." said Bryan Stevenson, founder of "The Equal Justice Initiative," the nonprofit organization responsible for the memorial. Many of them, he said, "have never been mentioned in public." Stevenson and a small group of lawyers spent years rummaging through county archives and libraries to document the thousands of lynchings for racial terrorism that occurred throughout the south.

They have cataloged almost 4,400 in total. Inspired by the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Stevenson decided that a single memorial was the most impressive way to give an idea of the magnitude of the bloodshed. But on the site there are also duplicates of each of the steel columns, arranged in rows like coffins, for the purpose of being distributed throughout the country in the counties where lynchings were carried out. The inhabitants of those counties can apply for them - dozens of requests have already been submitted - but they must show that they have made efforts at the local level to "resolve the racial and economic injustice."

In Stevenson's case, the plans for the memorial and the accompanying museum grew out of the decades he spent in Alabama's courtrooms as a witness to a criminal justice system that treats African-Americans with particular cruelty or indifference. Since 1989, the Equal Justice Initiative offers legal services to poor people who are imprisoned, working hard in a city flooded with Confederate monuments, in a state that has the highest per capita death penalty rate in the country. Virtually all team members are attorneys with clients in the prison system but continued to work full time in legal defense while laboriously gathering the names of the lynched and planning the memorial.

Stevenson, whose great-grandparents had been slaves in Virginia, has written about “righteous mercy," the idea that those who have committed serious offenses should be given the opportunity to redeem themselves. It is a conviction for which he has advocated on behalf of his clients throughout his career, and believes that it is valid even for the white United States whose brutality is reflected in the memorial. "If I believe that each of us is something more than the worst thing he has ever done in life," he said, "I have to believe it for everyone."

But this story has to be recognized and its destructive legacy must be faced, he said. And this is particularly difficult in "the most punitive society on the planet". People do not want to recognize bad actions in the US, Stevenson said, because he only expects punishment. "I'm not interested in talking about US history because I want to punish the US," Stevenson continued. "I want to free the US and I think it's important that we do it as an organization that has created an identity that is as dissociated as possible from punishment."

The offices of the initiative are a few blocks away, in a building that was formerly a warehouse of the great Montgomery slave market. Now it is the headquarters of the Legacy Museum, the piece that accompanies the memorial. It is not a conventional museum, full of indifferent objects and comments. Perhaps it is better to define it as the presentation of the argument, supported by first-hand accounts and contemporary documents that the slave system did not disappear but evolved: from the national slave trade that destroyed families to the decades of lynchings, Jim's suffocating segregation Crow and the era of mass incarceration in which we live now. The museum ends with a gesture oriented to the future. Next to the exit is a section with a voter registration post, information on volunteer opportunities and suggestions on how to discuss all of this with the students. Given what there is before, it seems a discordant expression of confidence in the possibility of change. But it has its reason for being.

Among the stories offered by the museum is that of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 28 years on death row after being unjustly convicted of two murders by a jury composed only of whites. The reasons why he was innocent seemed clear, but Equal Justice Initiative lawyers spent 16 years working for their freedom, filing appeals until they reach the Supreme Court. Hinton knows from his own experience how stubborn injustice can be, but it is final: if people gave up in despair, he would be dead. "I refuse to believe that there is no hope because I am a product of what can happen when one fights," he said. "If we do not fight, who's going to fight?" In the middle of the memorial a grassy knoll rises.

From it you can see the silhouette of Montgomery through the thicket of hanging columns, the river where the slaves were sold and the state Capitol building that once housed the Confederation, whose monuments the current governor of Alabama has sworn to protect. It is a shocking sight. But Stevenson pointed out that when you're standing there, you're also in sight, surrounded on all sides by the names of the thousands who were run over, judged instantaneously and perversely executed. "You may feel judged yourself," he said. "What are you going to do?"