I am hopeful we have a shot at redemption

5 mins read


It’s Saturday and I’m in Montgomery, Ala., with my wife, Susan, and we’re at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — aka the Lynching Memorial—which was built by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

This installation of rectangular steel boxes memorializes 4,400 people who were lynched — mostly in the American South — between 1877 and 1950. Each rusted box represents a county, and they are lined up like a regiment of silent infantry, and each is inscribed with the names of the men (and women) who were lynched in each of these counties. This is not a destination I would have chosen on my own.

Although my destinations tend to favor West Africa or Northern Italy, there was a time when I sought-out well-tended fields where thousands of young farm boys perished in an effort to capture an insignificant ridge or an unimportant stone bridge. My wife was never enthusiastic about my taking our son to Antietam or Petersburg; although we would later learn that her great grandfather, Joseph Reid, had fought with the 7th Virginia Calvary, Ashby’s command, and his sidearm resides in our bookcase.

In those days I believed that the Civil War had dealt with slavery in the sense that hundreds of thousands soldiers had paid a price for that sin. I believed that their blood, both blue and gray, had bought some measure of absolution for our collective guilt. I was not so naive to think there were no lingering problems. But believed a gradual reconciliation was under way.

The EJI says the Civil War was only a promise—an unfulfilled promise followed by years of violence, and intimidation, and that ultimately blacks were forced off the land and into urban ghettos. The EJI says we must acknowledge the horror — and take responsibility for it — if we want redemption.

The Memorial also comes with a museum which is a modest, white-painted brick building within 500 yards of the Alabama River where many of the slaves arrived by steamboat.

The Legacy Museum begins its narrative with a video showing that most of these slaves arrived from Richmond, Norfolk and Baltimore — cities in the Upper South — rather than Liberia or Angola.

After that, one descends a ramp into a darkened simulated prison where wraith-like, holographic men, women and children tell their haunting stories. This leads to a larger room where one takes a journey from slavery times to the time of lynchings, immigration, segregation and, ultimately, resistance. All of which is presented by way of enlarged photographs, videos and interactive maps. 

One of the maps tells us — county by county — where the lynchings took place and who was lynched. In this regard, there was one lynching in Beaufort County — a man named William Cornish in 1901. By contrast, there were 10 lynchings in Colleton County and six in Hampton County. (I suspect the number is low in Beaufort because black folk still enjoyed a numerical majority in 1901.)

The museum experience is not pleasant — or particularly hopeful — and I walked through the exhibits stunned and stupefied all the while trying to deal with my feelings. And I suspect these feelings vary with each individual visitor.

A few may think what is presented is exaggerated. Some may feel it’s time to move on; or that they cannot be blamed for the sins of their grandparents. But I believe the vast majority come away sad and many of the white folks feel a sense of shame.

But the problem I have is that I knew my grandparents — they lived in Florence County where there were nine lynchings — and I loved them. It is tough, perhaps its impossible, to condemn the people who nurtured you and with whom you share your DNA. But the Montgomery memorial stirs-up deep, long-buried anger and anguish for the sin that was part of our nation’s birthing.

It is remarkable that Alabama — cradle of the Confederacy — gives us a shot at redemption.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

Latest from Blog


Woman’s love of Beaufort redeemed I love Beaufort, because of the people. My daughter and I…