In April, Project Pilgrimage took a group of 15 people to the grand opening of Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The three day summit was an important and moving look into the stark and traumatic history of lynching in America.
The Equal Justice Initiative has been one place we visit on every civil rights pilgrimage. For anyone who has been there, it’s not hard to tell why. The power of the work the organization does, reflected in the many deeply moving photographs dispersed throughout the building and the wall of soils recognizing and honoring the victims of some of the most heinous crimes in our nation’s history, this is something we try to share with every participant of the civil rights pilgrimage. EJI has always been a place of profound work which culminated into a project unlike any other ever undertaken in the United States, the Peace and Justice Memorial.
The EJI Peace and Justice Summit was much more than a ribbon cutting at a new building. We arrived to the hotel two doors down from EJI’s office and opened our weekend with a list of guest speakers and workshops so rich that everyone could easily pick one of many sessions ranging in topics from education in America, climate change and environmental justice,and reforming criminal justice. Speakers included Gloria Steinem, Rev. Dr. William Barber, Anthony Ray Hinton, Brittany Packnett, Michelle Alexander, and Al Gore. Workshops covered an array of topics and all shared a common theme: our country has overcome so much to get to this moment, it’s up to us to keep fighting.
The opening of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice has arrived. It was a raining very hard the first day of our visit, which was fitting for what we were about to witness. The museum is a beautiful construction of multimedia representations of our history and our present injustices toward African American people and incarcerated people. There were very few who did not have a moment of tears before leaving the space. The combination of art, research, historical documents, and curation made for a museum experience unlike any other. Following the opening we made our way, in the pouring rain, to the lynching memorial.
The memorial was as beautiful as EJI had imagined it would be. Rain poured and everyone was granted solace in that moment of walking through our country’s pain, and for many of us, our own pain. The history written on the walls when you enter the space reminds visitors of exactly where we come from, nothing held back or sugar coated. The memorial is filled with steel monuments containing the name of the county, the date of the lynching, and the name of the victims. As you move further into the monument there is context provided for numerous individuals, each reason behind the lynching being as unjust and appalling as the next. The final stop in the memorial is where each county is encouraged to come pick up their monument, to bring it home and display it for all to see. EJI is encouraging all of us to take a close, honest look at our history and to commit to taking action to change course for our future.
The weekend closed with a concert to end all concerts. Ms. Patti LaBelle hit the stage during the opening ceremony and the legendary Stevie Wonder performed at the weekend’s end. The experience was beautiful, not excluding anything. The pain, the empowerment, the inspiration, the celebration, the conversations, the calls to action all came together allowing the thousands in attendance to return home with a renewed commitment to the work.
As Bryan Stevenson took the stage, one of the few times he did, he shared that he had been crying all week. To see his life’s work culminate into a space so rich and a legacy so lasting was a moment that we celebrated with him and the entire EJI team. It was truly an unforgettable experience.