The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
MASS Design Group
Montgomery, AL, United States
Katie Swenson (Senior Principal, MASS Design Group)
Equal Justice Initiative
After witnessing countless links between our current system of injustice and the historical injustices of the American South, EJI began researching and documenting lynching in the United States. In 2015, EJI released a report tracing the history of lynching from slavery to the present day, identifying over 4,000 victims of racial terror lynchings across twelve US States between 1877 and 1950 in the most comprehensive investigation of lynching to date.
Inspired by EJI, MASS Design Group supported the creation of a community remembrance project, working with volunteers to collect 364 samples of soil from former lynching sites across Alabama. It was from these processes that the consensus to build a permanent memorial emerged.
EJI believes that slavery and racial injustice within America has not ended, but has instead evolved into new forms of prejudice and systematic oppression. This thesis is reflected in the processes of healing embedded within the memorial’s design. The memorial grounds feature sculptures depicting scenes of slavery, civil rights, and contemporary racial injustice.
The memorial was intended to not only honor the countless victims of lynching, but to transform the ways in which we engage in conversations of racial injustice. Transformation, EJI believes, happens in 5 stages: acknowledging identity, enduring discomfort, getting proximate, changing the narrative, and remaining hopeful. The memorial’s design guides visitors through these stages by shifting their spatial relationship to the monuments, inviting them to reflect on their relationship to the history being evoked.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is committed to ending mass incarceration and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people across the United States. EJI has spent over a decade collecting the stories of the victims of racial terror lynchings, identifying the evolution of racial terror, from slavery, to lynching, to present day forms of excessive carceral punishment.
EJI partnered with MASS Design Group to design the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to honor the stories of over 4,000 individuals, and to show the collective impact of lynching in America. The design process began with a community-based initiative to collect soil from sites where lynchings occurred, honoring the lives of the individuals murdered, and allow families the opportunity to grieve together.
The memorial holds over 800 corten steel monuments, each representing a US county where lynchings occurred. Visitors proceed through the memorial along an inner walkway that gradually lowers in elevation, transforming the viewer’s relationship to the monuments suspended above.
Outside the main structure, 800 duplicate monuments lie in rows. Counties are invited to confront the violence in their community, and ultimately, bring their memorial home to mark that violent chapter of their history.
Devoted to a process of truth-telling, reconciliation, and healing, the memorial opened in April 2018 and received over 300,000 visitors within the first six months. The memorial was intended to not only honor the countless victims of lynching, but to transform the ways in which we engage in conversations of racial injustice.
The monuments remain at a constant elevation while the visitor changes their orientation to a stationary truth. Entering the memorial, visitors identify each monument directly, seemingly acting as support pillars. This perception shifts when the walkway descends, and visitors realize the monuments are suspended from the roof. Visitors grapple with this discomfort, arriving at a cooling water wall that represents the countless unknown victims.
The corridor opens to the central hill at the center of the memorial, inverting the lynching square as the visitor is placed above the monuments in a call to action. The memorial site is on one of Montgomery’s highest points, and is geographically positioned such that the structure points towards landmarks of civil rights history within Montgomery.
Outside of the structure, a pathway leads visitors to the monument park, which holds over 800 duplicate monuments in purgatory. Counties are invited to claim their monuments from this park and erect them in their own communities, thereby participating in a larger process of truth telling and healing. As counties claim their monuments, the memorial’s landscape transforms into an amphitheater for public gathering.
The memorial aspires to facilitate systemic change in structural racism by setting in motion a process of truth telling and reconciliation. This movement recently saw the passage of a Senate bill in December 2018 that made lynching a federal crime, a bill that had been debated in the Senate since 1918. It is a contribution, not the conclusion, to a larger national demand for racial reckoning.