Visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Brandon del Pozo
February 6, 2019
Each of the metal boxes above is inscribed with the name of a county where a black American was murdered by lynching, and the names of those victims. The names run into the thousands. This is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama. It is the city that was both the cradle of the Confederacy and where Rosa Parks wouldn't sit at the back of the bus. The memorial opened last year.
I paid the memorial a visit yesterday. You can't help but feel a profound sense of failure and grief when you're there, especially if you have made a commitment to protect and rescue people in danger. These were thousands of murders by mobs as police, sheriffs, and the rest of the nation did little or nothing but step aside, watch, or help. They were of blacks who asked children not to throw rocks at them, or had a picture of a white woman in their hat, or didn't call a cop "mister," or stole a ham. They were acts of terrorism because they were meant to keep black citizens terrified of being killed at any time, for any perceived slight, unless they slavishly obeyed.
Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. These metal boxes hanging here are as hollow as the holes left in people's souls when the ones they loved were murdered by a mob. They are also as hollow as the progress we have made in accounting for what we did to these victims as a nation, and Vermont is a part of that nation. They are as hollow as any pride in thinking we have done enough to not have to reconcile this past with our future by confronting it today.
This is not ancient history. Blacks were lynched in America through the 1950's, and as late as the 80's, and are still killed today on pretenses that would not suffice for white Americans. Is it any wonder why so many black Americans to this day think this nation doesn't love them? These lynchings are the stories of their own grandparents.
I was very humbled by my visit to Alabama. I wish everyone could go.
I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice after reading about it in the London Review of Books. We truly haven't reckoned with the murderous violence and terror black Americans suffer through.
The memorial unflinchingly defines our legacy and our present. I sent my cops there in 2019 to get a sense of it.
The memorial and the Legacy Museum are endeavors of the Equal Justice Initiative, "an Alabama-based group committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the U.S., challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society."
I read this article on a plane to Orlando in the fall of 2018 on a the way to an international conference for Chiefs of Police. It left me teary-eyed, recounting the way men, women and their children were lynched, tortured and murdered as their killers laughed and joked and the police and sheriffs did nothing, or helped.
I got permission to give this reprint to my officers, and I hope the LRB doesn't mind that I've put it up here. Every American should read it. The original article on their site is here.