ESSAY: American Auschwitz

Chet Delaney of Egremont struggles to comprehend the horrors documented at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

A glorious, sunny, mid-March morning in Montgomery, Alabama – gold, blue, green, seasonably warm. In this lovely setting sits the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The entrance to the Memorial. Photo: Chet Delaney

It is a stunning, sobering place.

It is a memorial to the thousands of Americans who were killed by groups of their fellow citizens. Killed without due process of any kind. Killed in deliberate denial of “these truths” – their equality before the law, their right to liberty and life, their pursuit of happiness.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Photo: Chet Delaney

Killed with complete impunity for the killers. Indeed, sometimes killed in celebratory fashion, at a place and time advertised in the newspaper! Sometimes killed in cruel, gruesome ways.

Killed for reasons that gag in today’s throat – for a piddling social gaffe, for an insufficiently ingratiating display of submissiveness, for asking for a drink of water. Even for someone else’s political or social or sexual benefit. Killed to remind everyone – especially through the penalty-free pervasiveness of the killings – killed to make clear just who the top dogs were.

Not all of those killed are memorialized here by name. Thousands remain unknown, lost in secrecy and indifference and fear. But 4,400 are commemorated here by name or at least by date. They are memorialized on huge metal slabs that look like nothing so much as rusting coffins, slabs hung from the ceiling of a long, wandering, open-air building, then in rows leading to the Memorial’s exit. Each slab lists a state and a county in which at least one of the killings took place, with the name of the victim and date of each killing in that county. Sometimes only the date is listed if the name of the person killed cannot be known for sure. All of this carefully documented. Places, names, dates – all validated.

Inside the Memorial, Photo courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures

The killings are lynchings – “extra-judicial, extra-legal killings,” says the dictionary primly. True enough, but our history defines lynching as the uncoordinated, fearsome, murderous system that maintained white supremacy as the de facto law of the land: Jim Crow’s enforcer.

Interspersed among the hanging slabs are tiled walls, the tiles providing some details of a specific lynching. Details that shock, humble, horrify. A man, his wife, and four children lynched together in 1908 Kentucky. Seven lynchings on one deadly day in 1899 Arkansas, 17 in a single Alabama county. A wall of two dozen lynchings as recent as the 1950’s, among them 14-year-old Emmet Till in 1955. A black man named General Lee lynched in 1904. “Dozens” killed in a “massacre” in East St. Louis, Illinois, another “massacre” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Slabs and tiles documenting terror that was ignored by society at large, spoken of in fear-stricken whispers among the terror’s targets, fled by those targets when they could manage to do so.

Photo courtesy Equal Justice Initiative /Human Pictures

Visitors wander among the slabs. Some finding the names of ancestors whose fate is part of their family’s oral history. Most just walking slowly, pensively, reading, making an occasional note. Feeling who knows what: Anger? Incredulity? Humility? Resistance? Shame? Fear? Vengefulness? No doubt a tangle of reactions.

The Memorial is indeed an Auschwitz. Not a place where the victims were brought to be killed. Not a camp where soon-to-be victims worked for their lives. But, like Auschwitz today, a place to remind us of the evil we have done and can do again. A place to help us edge towards acknowledging rather than denying or ignoring or pretending. A place, ideally, to help us heal for real, live up to the ideas that birthed our country. It is not certain that we can do this. It is not certain that we will truly try.