The Most Important Memories I (N)ever Had

Travel is about memories. Our journeys are about the memories we make while we are moving from one place to another. But they are also about the collective memories that we witness and share over time and space as members of the human community. Military wreckage on the Normandy Beach. Ancient stonework attesting to the craftsmanship of cathedral builders of centuries ago. A market stall in Cairo’s bazaar where shoes have been sold for centuries.

Last fall I visited a place that is a container for some of the most important human memories I have ever bumped up against. One of the places I visited on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage (in which I participated in the the Fall of 2019) was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. This somber structure is often referred to as the “Lynching Memorial.” Founded by lawyer, activist, and author Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, it is a profoundly moving site. Stevenson describes it this way:

We opened this memorial that is dedicated to thousands of victims of racial terror lynchings. And for me, it’s been so affirming to see people come into that space. Black and white people, many of them are in tears. Many of them will wrap their arms around the monuments that represent the communities where they are from, and you can see them sobbing. But through that pain, there is beauty that emerges. You begin to see the possibility of restoration.

At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Every documented lynching between 1877 and 1950—whether of a named person or not—is memorialized on a rusted and weathered COR-TEN steel block representing the state and county in which the particular lynching happened. The memorial walks the visitor through scores of these blocks (initially 800 monuments represented over 4400 lynchings), some sitting on the ground, others hanging ominously from the roof of the memorial structure. As you pass by each steel marker you descend deeper and deeper into the forest of rusted metal and are reminded of the overwhelming reality of this long denied terrorism against Black Americans. This is not Black history. This is not southern history. This is American history. This is our history. This is my history.

Steel blocks hold memories of lynchings.

This site is reminiscent of memorials like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. or the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Yet one additional aspect of this memorial struck me as different from most structures like this one. Outside of the structure of the memorial proper is a large field filled with steel blocks that are exact duplicates of those standing or hanging in the memorial structure. Each one is marked with the same remembrances of individuals, counties, and states carved into them. 

These blocks are not attached, but are meant to be taken from this space. They are part of the Community Remembrance Project, one way that the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization that created and sustains this memorial) offers to support communities looking to engage in this work of remembering. The project is “part of a larger movement to create an era of restorative truth-telling and justice that changes the consciousness of our nation.” EJI works with communities to “erect historical markers, organize soil collection ceremonies, and hold essay contests for local high school students to support the development of local, community-led efforts to engage with and discuss past and present issues of racial justice.” After this hard work of community remembrance, EJI may collaborate with the people of that state and county to place a monument—from the duplicates found at the memorial site (“identical to the monument found at the National Memorial”)—in their own community. The belief is that these kind of memorials “can help transform our national landscape into a more honest reflection of the history of America and reflect a community’s ongoing commitment to truth-telling and racial justice.”

Monuments await communities to come and claim them.

And so I wonder if perhaps this is the criteria we should use when erecting all statues and monuments. Do they tell the truth, whether it be good news or bad news—about our lives as a people? Does the truth-telling lead us to justice and the common good? Is the monument something around which we can all gather and find healing and hope?

Spiritual Practice: Discover Hard Truths

When Lena and I travel, we have visited many sites that depict heroism or perceived greatness. Places where courageous warriors made a last stand against occupiers on behalf of their people. Amazing murals that sing the greatness of the artist even as they give tribute to God. Castles that house the wealth of a nation. Sites where holy women and men walked. Buildings full of artifacts, objects, and documents that witness to ancient glories. Many of these sites bring us amazing truths about civilizations and show forth the beauty of humankind. The places often give us a sense of wonder (and even pride) about ourselves and all of human history.

But what does it look like to cast a different gaze upon the past? To remember how human wealth is often acquired by evil means? To remember that those who rose from oppression have frequently become the oppressors? To remember that the price of one beautiful new creation is the consequence of previous destruction? To remember that great men (usually men) excluded large groups of people from their profound words of liberation? To remember that as humans—this evil, this destruction, this greed, this hatred—is also our heritage?

When I travel, I try not to think that what I am seeing is only about someone else. I try to remember that what I see is also in me. I try to remember that what people did one thousand years ago I can do today. As I appreciate the truth of what humans have been and done, I hope I can see the hard realities as well as celebrating the beautiful truths. I hope I can see the evil in me and not simply project it onto other people, cultures, or civilizations.

That is the practice. You see, for me it is only in confessing my weakness and brokenness, (what the Judeo-Christian tradition calls sin), that I can begin to find freedom. It is only in looking the past square in the face that I can even imagine the possibility of a different future. I travel and look to the past as one step in finding my way to a different, more loving, more hopeful future.

Bryan Stevenson offers a similar perspective in this short video about truth-telling as it relates to our American past:

6 thoughts on “The Most Important Memories I (N)ever Had

  1. Jim, I really appreciate your reflection and illumination of an area of American history long ignored. Last September we visited the Lynching Memorial and wondered how we could build support for placing a monument in Glynn County, Georgia, where we spend our winters. There are 4 names inscribed on the Glynn County monument and one more name, Ahmaud Arbery, the black jogger, should be added. Following that horrific event along with George Floyd’s murder, I thought there might be interest building in Glynn County to bring back the monument from Montgomery. However, I heard from two sources, one African-American and one white, that there was a growing “whitelash” and discussing the monument would not be welcomed in certain circles. After just reading about the proposed process with The Community Remembrance Project, I realized how “white” of me to be focused on getting the monument placed in the county so I could see that to completion. Clearly, it is the community engagement and courageous conversations that are critical to creating meaning, understanding that might include, at some point, a physical monument. Hopefully, we can get back to Georgia safely this winter and reach out to community members as a start in a process to where it may lead. . .

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    1. Paul, I loved that you were moved in this way. I suspect I might have traveled a similar path. But, as you say is it the “community engagement and courageous conversations” that are so important to moving ahead. These conversations (if they are real) seem so much harder than getting a monument erected. And it is this act (and acts of justice that flow from the conversation) that is the transformative one.

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  2. Would it be possible to establish a museum for all the statues of presidents, generals, soldiers who were owners of slaves that we are pulling down and breaking up. I fear the loss of this history to future generations. It is how our nation developed and we are writing it out for better or for worse.

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    1. Barbara, I have no idea what is possible, but I would certainly support what you propose. We need to hang onto our history, but I think we need to have honest conversations about it. That’s exactly why I like the “Lynching Memorial” – it is honest about one particular aspect of our history that we have overlooked. The presidents, soldiers and generals also have a place – but instead of blindly honoring them perhaps we need more interpretive spaces (like museums) and places for conversations about all of our ancestors – their gifts and their flaws.

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    1. Barb – thanks so much. Bryan Stevenson is one of my heroes. He is courageous, practical, and genuinely compassionate. His organizations and work are wonderful proof of his character. I agree, he is a very important voice.

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