Memorializing the Present: Montgomery’s New Legacy Museum




LAST MONTH, I spent a few weeks in the South with a friend. During the first leg of the trip, as we wound our way through the Appalachians, we began to notice something curious. Once we hit Virginia, the strip of land beside the highway, previously wild and overgrown, was now impeccably manicured — the grass newly cut and the hedges well trimmed. When we finally stopped for dinner at a barbecue restaurant in the town of Front Royal, my friend joked to the waitress that the town must spend half of its municipal budget on highway maintenance. “Oh no,” she answered casually, “we have a couple of penitentiaries up the road.” My friend — who, like me, is white — reacted instantly, almost automatically: “So you mean modern-day slavery.” She paused, as if sizing us up anew. “Well, the prisoners must have done something wrong,” she responded after a moment. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be there in the first place, right?”

That exchange kept running through my mind as we walked through Montgomery’s new Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, two companion sites dedicated to the history of racial injustice that recently opened in Alabama’s capital. Both sites are creations of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization founded and directed by criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson. Since their inauguration in April 2018, the two sites have received significant press coverage, most of which has centered on the memorial, an homage to the victims of racial lynching modeled on Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial and the Apartheid Museum in South Africa. It is certainly true, as The New Yorker’s Alexis Okeowo has written, that the memorial is a powerful counterpoint to the Confederate monuments of a city that still proudly advertises itself as home to the “First White House of the Confederacy.” Yet when I visited both sites on a Thursday afternoon in August, the museum struck me as an even more radical space. While the memorial seeks to spark a debate about how we remember the past, the museum uses that past to undercut our common narratives about the present. Located in a former slave warehouse and bearing the subtitle “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” it systematically argues that slavery in the United States has never ended. Through timelines, interactive exhibits, and archival footage, the 11,000-square-foot museum builds the case that the contemporary mass incarceration state, where millions of prisoners engage in compulsory work with little or no compensation, functions as a mode of racial control whose roots can be traced back to the institution of chattel slavery.

The Legacy Museum is clearly the product of an attorney’s mind. As The New York Times’s Jesse Wegman has observed,

[Stevenson] is a very good lawyer, and he knows that the most effective way to make your case — particularly to people who see the world very differently from you — is not with outrage and condemnation but with a slow, thorough accumulation of evidence and argument leading to an inevitable conclusion.

Just as importantly, the argument that Stevenson presents in the museum derives from a decades-long intellectual project and collaborative enterprise. EJI started in 1994 as a legal organization that provided representation for death row inmates, juvenile offenders, and others suspected to have suffered discrimination or wrongful conviction in the criminal justice system. But over the past decade it has also evolved into one of the most important racial justice think tanks in the country, with a team of nearly 50 lawyers, historians, and staff. That team spent 10 years researching and amassing the material for the museum, and has published three detailed reports on the history of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation since 2013. The museum’s bookstore looks less like a souvenir shop than the textbook aisle for a course on black studies and the history of slavery. A partial list of the authors whose titles are on display in the bookstore gives a key to the source of the museum’s narrative and design: Michelle Alexander, Edward Baptist, Sherrilyn Ifill, Walter Johnson, Douglas Blackmon, Isabel Wilkerson, Leon Litwack, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jesmyn Ward. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the museum is how it harnesses the power of academic scholarship, investigative journalism, and imaginative literature to create a coherent historical narrative.

The scholarly influence can perhaps best be seen in EJI’s decision to make the museum a history of racial injustice in the United States, rather than a history of racial progress. In the face of mainstream commentators who began in the 1980s and 1990s to characterize the United States as a “postracial society” (declarations that crescendoed after the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008), a number of writers and academics set out to challenge the premise that racial discrimination had diminished, let alone disappeared. The most iconic book in this vein was undoubtedly Michelle Alexander’s 2010 The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which explicitly linked the post–Civil Rights “War on Drugs” and the explosion of the American prison population to earlier modes of racial discrimination. Alexander argued that the 21st-century political disenfranchisement and economic exploitation of incarcerated people — a disproportionate number of them African-American — represented a new “racial caste system,” similar in effect to Jim Crow if different in form. Furthermore, she traced the coerced labor policies of contemporary prisons back to the early post–Civil War period, relying on works such as Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 2008 study Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, which details how post-Reconstruction “convict leasing” programs in the South reproduced many elements of the plantation system while anticipating the prison labor practices of the postwar era. Piece by piece, a narrative about the enduring political and economic continuities from enslavement to mass incarceration emerged. In the wake of Alexander’s book, a wave of films and documentaries began to mainstream its message, perhaps most notably Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th (that’s one reason my friend, who is neither an activist nor an academic, could so readily access its language). The Legacy Museum belongs to this line of recent works, which have sought to answer Alexander’s call to forge “a new social consensus […] about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society.”

At the same time, EJI drew from a growing body of scholarship on public memory and memorialization. Stevenson has often spoken of the inspiration he took from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed apartheid. But in the US context, the crucial source text for EJI was Sherrilyn Ifill’s 2007 book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century, which uses the South African context to make a case for creating “commemorative public spaces” and “monuments” to the history of lynching in the United States. EJI’s 2015 report on lynching cites Ifill’s bid for memorialization before criticizing the way that mainstream narratives of African-American history favor stories of empowerment and uplift:

Formal remembrances of national racial history tend to celebrate the civil rights movement’s victories, focusing on individual achievements and success stories rather than reflecting on the deeply-rooted, violent resistance that upheld the racial caste system for so long. Honoring civil rights activists and embracing their successes is appropriate and due, but when they are not accompanied by meaningful engagement with the difficult history of systematic violence perpetrated against black Americans for decades after slavery, such celebrations risk painting an incomplete and distorted picture.

That air of celebratory nostalgia is hard to miss in the Civil Rights museums in Montgomery and elsewhere in the South. Even the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is not immune to it, as museum architect David Adjaye made clear in an interview: “This is not a story about past trauma. For me, the story is one that’s extremely uplifting, as a kind of world story.” The events of the past few years have made that a tough conclusion to swallow.

These scholarly arguments — about the ongoing legacy of slavery in the 21st century; against narratives of racial triumphalism — structure the Legacy Museum at its most basic level. This begins with the first video installation, which informs the visitor that Montgomery “is a city shaped by slavery and the legacy of this horrific era is all around you.” As if to ensure that this information not dissolve into a platitude about how far we’ve come since slavery, the voice-over renders its contemporary relevance explicit: “White families became rich off the work of enslaved people. Some of those families remain wealthy to this day, and many of the descendants of the people who built that wealth still struggle in poverty.” In the main exhibit hall, the effort to render the continuities between past and present continues. A timeline of American racial history that stretches across the left-hand wall divides American history into four overlapping historical periods: “Enslavement in America,” “Lynching and Racial Terrorism,” “Segregation Forever,” and “Mass Incarceration.” To the right, each of these periods receives a large free-standing display (the display for “Enslavement in America,” for example, is a blown-up reproduction of the purchasing catalog for an 1854 Montgomery slave auction), a series of interactive touch screens (whose entries include “Abuse and mistreatment of Slaves,” “The legalization of white supremacy,” and “Collateral consequences of arrest and incarceration”), and a short informational video. The point is for the visitor to (literally) follow the path from the 18th to the 21st century, recognizing how the tactics of white supremacy and the rhetoric of black inferiority repeat with a difference in each successive historical moment.

Anyone who has visited a Civil Rights museum will immediately perceive the main exhibit hall’s radical reorientation of historical figures and events. Rather than Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the formal demise of slavery after the Civil War, the focal points here are the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and the rise of the convict leasing programs across the US South. Rather than Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and the defeat of Jim Crow, the exhibit hall underscores the “massive resistance” of white Southerners to Brown v. Board of Education and the determined Southern effort to defy federal civil rights legislation. To be sure, the museum recognizes the accomplishments and sacrifices of black activists — one of the most moving exhibits is a documentary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956. But it tempers the visitor’s enthusiasm toward these iconic historical moments. The final panel of the “Segregation Forever” timeline is emblematic of the museum’s overall attitude toward historical change:

Against overwhelming odds, the Civil Rights Movement successfully disrupted the legal architecture that had sustained Jim Crow. And yet, the narrative of white supremacy that fueled both segregation and resistance to equality persisted and became entrenched in the administration of criminal justice.

In the Legacy Museum’s history, each progressive victory meets with a new strategy for racial control.

Statistics are everywhere in the Legacy Museum. A million enslaved people were forcibly transported from the Upper South to the Lower South between 1810 and 1860. One in three black male babies born today is expected to serve time in prison. The Mississippi state legislature did not ratify the 13th Amendment until 2013 (!). But the museum also gives texture to the subjective experience of anti-black enslavement and discrimination. To do so, it borrows from the rhetorical techniques of some of the most celebrated works of contemporary African-American literature. As I stood in front of the most technologically sophisticated exhibit, a replica of slave pens from which holograms recite authentic 19th-century slave narratives, I couldn’t help but think of the work of Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine. In the first pen, an anguished young woman begs for assistance in finding her children, who have presumably been seized from her and sold to the highest bidder. Her first-person soliloquy immediately evoked Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Beloved, which revolves around the pain of separation of several generations of enslaved black women. In the fifth pen, two young boys cry out for their mother, perhaps the very woman we saw in the first. It took me a moment to figure out why the effect was so jarring. Eventually I realized it was because of the way that the holograms variously interpellate the viewer. In the first pen, the woman not only addresses “you” directly (“Can you help me find my children?”), but also identifies “you” as a white man and initially mistakes you as a purchaser of slaves (“You’re not … a buyer?”). In the fifth panel, on the other hand, the children first call out to “you” as their mother (“Momma? Momma?”). The exhibit, in other words, compels the viewer to alternately inhabit the place of a white slaver and an African-American enslaved woman. This use of second-person address for the purposes of cross-racial identification recalls Rankine’s 2014 poetry volume Citizen, which often refers to a lyric “you” that is implicitly coded — though never explicitly identified — as black. As Evie Shockley has argued, the white reader of Rankine frequently faces a kind of split-second cognitive decision: either you accept the identification with the black subject who is experiencing racial bias, or you reject that identification, but in so doing rupture the very logic of the poem. The slave pen exhibit seems to be doing something similar with the white viewer. From the moment you hear the voices, you are pulled into the museum’s racial history. How you respond is of course up to you, but here and elsewhere, the museum refuses to afford you the distance to contemplate this history as a story about other people and other times.

I left the Legacy Museum puzzled by one particular aspect of its timeline: the relative lack of attention given to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Black Power receives only a single mention — an entry in the museum’s interactive touch screens that mainly details the government assault on the Black Panthers after J. Edgar Hoover declared them “the greatest internal threat to the internal security of the country” in 1969. The omission of the actual tenets of Black Power is odd, in part because the movement anticipated the very work that EJI is doing. Most intellectual historians now agree that Black Power was the main force behind the creation of black studies programs in the US academy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Black Panthers were among the many Black Power groups that advocated for economic justice in ways that strongly resonate with the mission of EJI. One could argue that the museum’s treatment of Black Power is in keeping with what is now referred to as the “long civil rights movement thesis,” which holds that both the mainstream Civil Rights movement and Black Power were merely phases of a centuries-long black liberation struggle and thus not fundamentally different (no more simplified MLK “versus” Malcolm X typologies). Or one could see it as a question of regional emphasis, since the growth of Black Power was primarily in the North and West, far from Montgomery and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Dr. King. Yet I suspect that there are also ideological considerations at play. For one thing, EJI’s founding principles suggest that it seeks to build interracial coalitions to combat race- and class-based injustice, and it therefore makes sense that the museum would downplay the black separatist logic that animated many (though not all) strains of the Black Power movement. The story of Black Power is, among other things, a story about black nationalism, decolonization, and international socialism, three thorny topics that would complicate the museum’s streamlined account of how the country got from Brown v. Board and Civil Rights to Nixon’s War on Drugs. To truly address the global dimensions of the postwar period, the museum would need to take up a range of other issues.

Historical narratives are by their nature selective, though, and on the whole the Legacy Museum’s selections are effective and powerful. They’re also timely. Over the past month, we have witnessed the largest national prison strike in decades, one whose explicit goal has been to abolish “prison slavery.” In a recent interview, the state campaign manager for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice Janos Marton explained why the movement to end prison labor and mass incarceration has gathered momentum within the fractured political landscape that has given us both Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, Steve Bannon and Bernie Sanders, Jeff Sessions and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “Over the last few years, we have seen that people across this country are willing to entertain new ideas, both good and bad. I think this is part of what led to Trump’s rise […] [but] across the United States, people understand that the current system is broken.” Our political and economic system is broken. Trump was obviously a bad idea to fix it. The end of mass incarceration and forced prisoner labor are good ideas, at least to make a start. The Legacy Museum offers the hard data and historical analysis to understand why.

Of course, prison reform remains an uphill battle. Trump is still president. And in all honesty, it’s unlikely that the waitress from Virginia will ever set foot in the Legacy Museum. Part of the problem in this country, as we all know, is that we inhabit distinct universes of belief, with different logics of legitimation and different spaces where that legitimation occurs. An African-American woman we spoke to at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice put this in clear terms: “The white people who come here are probably not the white people who need to see this.” An even more cynical perspective was offered by the docent at the Freedom Riders Museum (also in downtown Montgomery). When I asked her how the conservative state government had reacted to the EJI sites, she responded that they were probably happy about the boost in tourism; when I pressed a bit further, she smiled and said, “Let’s just say it’s a good look for Alabama.” As if to say, they know how to get woke liberals to come and spend money in Montgomery. Point taken. But the Legacy Museum still represents a bold attempt to challenge ingrained American ideas about race in theory and in practice. And for those of us who seek to communicate academic scholarship to a general audience, it’s also a model for how to do public history: a cultural institution backed by 20 years of legal work; a legal initiative that takes seriously the power of culture to change minds. The legacy of slavery is all around us. But you’ll see it differently in Montgomery, if you’re able and willing to go.

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Jeffrey Lawrence teaches modern American and Latin American literature and culture at Rutgers University. He is the author of Anxieties of Experience: The Literatures of the Americas from Whitman to Bolaño (Oxford, 2018).

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Feature and banner images from the Legacy Museum.


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