The Equal Justice Initiative was founded in 1989 by Brian Stevenson and “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.” Recently, the EJI opened the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace & Justice.
APF board members Karah Thompson and Lisa Diller recently took students to the Memorial and Museum in Montgomery, AL. Karah traveled with her husband, daughter, and friend, while Lisa and the History/Political Science departments of Southern Adventist University took a group of students by bus to experience these sacred and humbling places. Here are the experiences of several students in their own words:
“One of my assumptions going down on the Montgomery trip that I wrote down at the beginning of the bus ride was that I would learn more about the complexities of racism, segregation and injustice in Alabama and how the issues of 150 years ago are still being unpacked today. Little did I know the profound impact the memorial and museum would have on my heart. My first thought when arriving to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was how it was the most beautifully solemn memorials I had ever seen. I was quickly taken aback by learning not only about the horrors committed against those of color in Alabama but all across the country — especially in the South. The very first statue seen when entering the memorial is a statue of shackled, enslaved peoples filled with torment, sadness, and pain. The iron on the shackles had been weathered and had a dripping effect which gave me the horrible images of shackled and bleeding men, women, and children. Hearing that there are over 4,000 lynchings documented in the South and seeing a visual representation of the 4,000+ lynchings are completely different. I was moved to tears walking through the rows of hanging iron coffins, each representing a county guilty of lynching and the victims’ names. Terrible things have happened in this country. It’s so easy to forget or push away our nation’s difficult past. However, this experience has truly shifted my paradigm on what slavery is and how it affected America. I believe only way to honor those who suffered and died is to remember them and share their stories. By remembering them we give the victims of racial injustice the respect and acknowledgment they deserve. I am now inspired to truly do my part in eliminating social injustice and standing up for those who have been repeatedly misrepresented.”
Siera Eklund - History/Accounting major
“I came because I had a family member that was lynched in Georgia and I was hoping to find them. When I got there, I realized it wasn’t just a few people who were lynched and it was scary how many people this happened to. I actually ended up finding that relative which was very moving to be able to see the name of my relative that was lynched during this awful time in American history. The museum was also interesting because it correlated with what we saw in the Memorial but connected it with what we still see in present day with mass incarceration.”
David Runnels II - Archaeology/Near East Studies major
“This trip was a sobering one for me. Walking the the lynching memorial, and seeing the names of the individuals who were lynched, some in cities and counties I know, made me realize how unaware I’ve been of this part of US history. It also made me realize how the lack of memorials like the one in Montgomery are inhibiting the healing process for so many people and communities across the South especially. Lynching sites are not memorialized, and names and lives are being forgotten.
The Legacy Museum was even more sobering, with so many photographs and personals accounts to see and read. What particularly struck a nerve in me was a photo of a boy who looked to be about 12 years old, crying and hugging his mother because he had been sentenced to death in prison. The photo was taken within the last 10 years. Another relatively recent photograph showed a 5 year old Latino boy being processed at a police station. I want to know more about juvenile and mass incarceration, especially what the national/legal conversation about it currently. The results of slavery and failed reconstruction are more tangible than I knew. I not only feel enriched but I also feel more aware of my personal responsibility to see what I can do in the resistance of racism and the pursuit of justice.”
Andrea Sequera - International Development Studies
“I found the plaque of my own home county with six names of people who were killed because of racism. This experience deeply impacted my understanding of the racial injustices that happened where I live and the consequences that our country still faces today because of them.”
Kristen Eldred - English/Professional Writing BA
“When I first arrived, I didn’t know what to expect, except that it was very somber and serious. The design of the memorial intrigued me and as we walked closer, and began reading the signs and quotes next to metal sculptures I realized the weight and depth of the memorial. The monument is shocking. Large steel boxes suspended from the ceiling in the open air, and the names of those lynched in each county engraved in the metal. Rows and rows of thousands of names made my heart feel heavy to know that so many people could be killed without reason, and partially for entertainment. Although the information was sickening, I am so thankful for the experience to understand history better and to speak up and make sure it can never be repeated.”
Olivia Thompson - High school sophomore
“Visiting the museum and memorial today was quite an eye-opening experience. Being a black woman visiting and seeing everything made the slaves stories so much more real. I never really understood why my Grandma was so afraid of me going to school down south. She used to live in Alabama and people close to her had gone through some very hard, scary things. But after today it makes sense why she is still afraid of me being down here on my own sometimes. Seeing the pictures of the crowds that attended the lynchings made me cry. I couldn’t believe that people would stand by and watch/participate in something so horrible. And watching how racism and terrorism have progress and changed has only made things more frightening. Seeing the memorial today I have some sense of peace. To know that someone is trying to remember something important makes me happy. Yes, it is sad. But I’m glad we can remember.”
Maddy Thomas, History/Teaching BA
“Our trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice, as well as the Legacy Museum was a MUST-SEE for any student, faculty, or staff at Southern. The dedicated work EJI has demonstrated in helping all of us understand how much racial terrorism has torn apart America is eye-opening and horrific all at once, but it is needed if we are to continue to have discussions about how our nation overcomes the walls of prejudice, discrimination, racism, and fear plaguing the twenty-first century. Though slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, its devastating effects have washed over every person – not just Blacks and Whites. Today, we have a duty to understand and stand against the powers and structures that perpetuate a racial hierarchy, starting in our Adventist institutions. Not doing so may undercut the message of Christ that we must share with all people, regardless of creed, culture, or color.”
Phillip Warfield - History major
If you are interested in visiting the Peace & Justice Memorial or the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL tickets can be purchased here.