Bryan Lee is a designer and founder/director of Colloqate Design, a nonprofit multidisciplinary design practice dedicated to expanding community access to design and creating spaces of racial, social and cultural equity.
At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the pain and horror of racial violence assume physical form.
There is a haunting sense of calm at the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Better known as the National Lynching memorial, the space opened on April 26 as a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal support to those unjustly persecuted in the criminal justice system. EJI spent just over 3 years and $15 million dollars to create the 8,400-square-foot museum and memorial, which is dedicated to the more than 4,400 victims of racial violence between 1877 and 1950 in the United States.
It is a space that takes an almost unimaginably difficult topic—the individual horror of lynching—and challenges its visitors to engage with it, to put lynching in its rightful context as a tool of racial terror throughout this country’s history. It is easy to be struck by the emotional gravity of it all. It is much harder to rationalize the depth of cruelty it requires to commit and allow such atrocities.
Architecture should, but rarely does grapple with these issues; because of this, I’ve spent my career in architecture—as a designer and as an advocate for “design justice”—working, researching, and challenging the many ways in which privilege and power structures use architecture as a means to perpetuate injustice in the built environment. The EJI memorial, which I toured recently, offers a revealing counterexample: how design can function as protest.
I was struck first by the pain in the expressions of the chained and manacled figures—statues of enslaved Africans by Ghanian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo—that meet you immediately as you walk in the space. The figures, absent a visible oppressor, stand juxtaposed against a concrete wall bearing the historical narrative of lynching in the United States. The red-brown rust from the iron chains around the figures’ necks, hands, and ankles bleeds into their bodies and into the clay earth.
The memorial itself, which was designed by the MASS Design Group, is housed inside an open-air pavilion a few steps away. Inside are 800 hanging markers of Corten steel, boxy pillars whose oxidized surfaces echo the figures outside. Each is inscribed with the name of a county in which a lynching occurred, along with the names of the victims and the dates of their murder. In the adjacent field outside, identical coffin-sized copies of each county’s marker are laid out in the grass. These duplicates are supposed to be removed from the site: The individual counties that bear their names are invited to claim them, so that they can be dispersed and displayed as memorials throughout the South.
The sheer scale of the trauma here is overwhelming. The act of lynching changed not only the human beings who endured it but the spatial dynamics of their environment; it changed the trees and the soil, the buildings and the bridges. In its frequency and visibility, it normalized displays of terror and humiliation: The sight of black bodies became a ritualized cultural event in white communities, and that shapes the ever-reductive response to the continued assault on black people to this day. The systematic campaign of lynching also permanently denied the opportunity for truth to be revealed in due process, stripping away our ability to account for the humanity of those murdered and remember their contributions to this world. The memorial in Montgomery is sacred ground that attempts to accurately represent and recognize our collective past in physical form.
To remember our collective past in the name of this truth is itself an act of resistance. The permanence of the spaces we choose to build in memoriam serves to immortalize the stories of those disinherited from the promise of an America at its inception. Truth is the obvious and necessary first step towards reparation and reconciliation, but ultimately, it requires a level of honesty and remorse for the founding sins of this country. We have shown very little capacity to muster that honesty. In fact, we have gone to great lengths to obfuscate our history by embedding false narratives across the physical landscape of our cities and towns. During and after Reconstruction, white supremacists erected more than 4,000 monuments, memorials, named streets, and buildings to honor the ideology of those who dedicated their lives to the dehumanization of others.
Alabama was the epicenter both of white supremacy and the modern civil rights movement, so it is fitting that the lynching memorial is seated in Montgomery. It is a quiet city that has held the acute burden of America’s particularly oppressive history and mythology in its body. Like bone is to blood, the architecture of a place is inextricably linked to the socio-cultural movements of the people within it, and Montgomery is an exemplar of this relationship.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and Claudette Colvin found resolve on its streets, parks, and buildings; their stories are well known, but most of us are less familiar with the streets, parks, and buildings themselves. It is said that for every injustice there is an architecture that has been designed to perpetuate it, and for every pursuit of justice there should be an equally considered architecture designed to fight for it. Montgomery is home to legendary places like the Dexter Avenue Church, a critical beacon in the civil rights movement. Just blocks away is its antithesis—the “First White House of the Confederacy,” a former residence of Jefferson Davis. Both spaces have stood in silent conflict for generations. But freedom and liberation cannot coexist where white supremacy is lifted up unchallenged. For this reason, our society must reckon with the truth in ourselves as well as the built environments that surround us.
EJI’s lynching memorial, then, poses a question to the nation about how we engage in difficult public dialogue. How might we consider the claiming of lands and the use of architecture and planning as an effective tool to facilitate the fight for justice? How might we balance the scales by establishing spaces that unabashedly face down our nation's flaws? What are the appropriate vessels to hold the echoes of unfathomable atrocities?
What I find fascinating about the architecture of this memorial is the positioning of space as an active participant in the fight for justice. Architecture is theoretically immovable and by its very nature alters the way in which people interface with the built environment. In the same way that Confederates used monuments to mark a lost cause, EJI has effectively used the design of this memorial as protest against the specific tools of oppression.
Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has referred to the creation of this memorial as a broader call to action in the fight for freedom and liberation. The notion that this place can serve as a foundation for a more substantial community of buildings and sites that directly address the prevailing systems of injustice that define our nation is intriguing and should be a part of this continued national dialogue, a dialogue that acknowledges the intersectional relationships amongst all issues of injustice. Imagine a collective national investment in memorials that address the continuation of slavery through mass incarceration and the systematic elimination of black neighborhoods in the 19th and 20th century through violence, planning, and public policy. Imagine spaces designed to show how public housing structuralized the dehumanization of black communities and how environmental racism poisoned those who lived in them. And perhaps in 15 or 20 years, we’ll have the courage to challenge police brutality and memorialize the victims of that violence. We are facing a crisis that is not new; it persists because we refuse to remember what or where we’ve come from.
When our memory fails us, we try to find the words. When the words escape us, we seek meaning in pictures and images. When the images do not do it justice, we design spaces and experiences to hold the stories in perpetuity. When we make a habit of remembering the complexity in our past, we often create rituals to carry that memory with us. Those rituals shape our culture, and our culture is in need of a shift in this country. We are infinitely better off when the design of spaces like the EJI memorial can charge our national dialogue and speak to that shift. The way we document and preserve our memory is our strongest tool against persisting injustice, and at this moment in time we should literally hold space to do so.