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How to Mark an American Atrocity

At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the pain and horror of racial violence assume physical form.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened last month.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened last month. Bryan Lee Jr./CityLab

There is a haunting sense of calm at the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Better known as the National Lynching memorial, the space opened on April 26 as a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal support to those unjustly persecuted in the criminal justice system. EJI spent just over 3 years and $15 million dollars to create the 8,400-square-foot museum and memorial, which is dedicated to the more than 4,400 victims of racial violence between 1877 and 1950 in the United States.

It is a space that takes an almost unimaginably difficult topic—the individual horror of lynching—and challenges its visitors to engage with it, to put lynching in its rightful context as a tool of racial terror throughout this country’s history. It is easy to be struck by the emotional gravity of it all. It is much harder to rationalize the depth of cruelty it requires to commit and allow such atrocities.