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Moats: Memorial In Montgomery

I happened to be in Montgomery, Alabama, the day after the opening of the new memorial for the nation’s victims of lynching. It’s called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The memorial contains hundreds of suspended iron columns, each of them representing one county and each with the names of the people lynched there and the dates when the murders occurred. The effect is something like the Vietnam Memorial — name upon name, representing someone who died. But the effect is also different, showing us that lynching occurred virtually everywhere in the South, and in places like Illinois, Indiana and Maryland. There are more than 4,000 names of people killed over more than 60 years, and these were just the documented cases — they didn’t include the countless people murdered and dropped in a swamp somewhere, never to be seen again.

On day two after the memorial opened, the atmosphere was somber. Maybe 80 percent of the crowd was African-American. Together black and white visitors were experiencing a shared history — in different ways.

One of the visitors that day was newly elected Senator Doug Jones, who made a name for himself as the prosecutor who gained a conviction for the Klan bomber who, in 1963, murdered four girls at a Birmingham church. Our history of racist terror is not exactly a distant memory.

One of the news stories that appeared when the memorial opened conveyed the thoughts of people who wondered if the memorial might be going overboard. Why not let sleeping dogs lie? That was the sentiment expressed. But those dogs have never been asleep. White supremacy depended on a campaign of terror, sanctioned at the highest levels. It’s why millions of black people fled the South during those years, seeking the relative safety of Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh or Detroit.

The memorial shows how the nation’s history has created sectional differences that are real and persistent. Racism exists everywhere, but mass murder with impunity didn’t occur in Vermont over those decades, while in the South it was pervasive. Southerners bridle at the self-righteous attitudes of Yankees, but the differing experiences of the different regions are still affecting our politics and our attitudes about social justice.

What’s important is not for one region to assume a morally superior posture, but for the nation to recognize the shared legacy that the memorial in Montgomery embodies.

David Moats is an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
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