In Berlin, you literally stumble onto the history of the Holocaust. It’s paved into the sidewalks as golden Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, that gleam bright with that nation’s dark history, spelling out the names of Nazism’s victims. Stroll through the Tiergarten, and you’ll see the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism and the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, and just beyond the park you might find yourself surrounded by a sea of concrete slabs and realize you’ve wandered into the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Within blocks, you’ll come to the Topography of Terror — built on the grounds where the Reich Security Main Office and other Nazi institutions once stood. Here, the city says, was the epicenter of a regime that terrorized and killed, that dehumanized and destroyed.
In contrast, in the American South those kinds of physical declarations — reminders that slavery happened here, that convict leasing, lynching, Jim Crow and segregation happened here — are largely absent, the landscape of historical markers dominated and distorted instead by tributes to the Confederacy.
“In America we haven’t removed the iconography of the Confederacy. In fact, we’ve glorified it. We’ve hoisted it up on flagpoles and in town squares,” Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told me in a 2017 interview for Newsweek. “We love talking about mid-19th-century history, but we are silent about slavery.”
EJI provided one response to this erasure on April 26, 2018, when it opened, in Montgomery, Alabama, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the accompanying Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery. “You are standing on a site where enslaved people were warehoused,” read the words that appear to be painted onto a brick wall in the museum lobby. Together, the two new projects aim to remind visitors not only that there, in that city, the slave trade flourished, but also that here, in the United States, people enslaved, murdered, terrorized and humiliated others because of the color of their skin. And EJI’s new sites go further, explicitly tying the injustices of the past to those of the present, as is evident in the museum’s name and the memorial’s description online: It’s dedicated, in part, to “people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” Here, they argue, this painful history is still happening.
Stevenson, a public interest lawyer who first made a name for himself in the late 1980s and early 1990s defending prisoners on death row, has helped exonerate the wrongly convicted, defended children, taken on the cases of adults with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, argued in front of the Supreme Court and won national recognition and honors, including a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” He was inspired to create the memorial and museum by the way that other countries have faced their histories and embarked on processes of truth, reconciliation and remembrance.
“In South Africa and Rwanda and Germany, there’s a visible display of the discomfort with the history of oppression and abuse,” he told me back in 2017. “The Germans are actually burdened by that era of fascism and Nazism.” What would it feel like if the country and its capital, instead of featuring stumbling stones and museums and memorials, were still plastered proudly with swastikas? Perhaps a little bit like driving through towns that lionize the Confederacy.
In his 2012 TED Talk, long before the memorial and museum were announced, Stevenson recalled some lectures he gave in Germany about the death penalty. Members of the audience told him that they didn’t have the death penalty there, that with their history it would be unconscionable. “And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation-state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable,” he said. “And yet, in this country, in the states of the Old South, we execute people,” especially when the victim is white and the defendant is black. “There is this disconnect.”
Nearly every article written about EJI’s memorial and museum — and there have been many — cites other countries’ efforts as sources of inspiration, including sites such as Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial, Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and, particularly, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. In many ways, EJI’s project can be placed in the context of a global commemorative trend. In other ways it stands apart, departing from and building on the work that influenced it. So while there are plenty of similarities, the differences are perhaps more consequential.
“It seems to be very much part of this trend in memorialization that reflects a focus on the violence of the past rather than the triumphs of the past,” said Amy Sodaro, a professor of sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and the author, last year, of “Exhibiting Atrocity: Memorial Museums and the Politics of Past Violence.” Most of the scholarly literature traces this genre of sites — that are ambivalent or self-indicting — to Holocaust memorialization as well as to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Sodaro explained. But it’s “been used for all different kinds of traumatic histories.”
The memorial in Montgomery is particularly evocative of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Sodaro says. And at first glance, the rectangular steel monuments that hang higher and higher above visitors’ heads in Montgomery might resemble the stone stelae that rise between a few inches and several feet off the ground in Berlin.
But if you take a closer look, you’ll notice physical differences that reveal deeper distinctions in the role that each site plays. For one, according to Valentina Rozas-Krause, a doctoral candidate in architecture at Berkeley who’s researching how the memories of 20th-century traumas are represented in public urban spaces in Argentina, Germany and the United States, the EJI monuments are inscribed. Unlike the concrete slabs in Berlin, which are devoid of any explicit mention of the victims they commemorate, the steel monuments in Alabama are etched with the names of counties and of the people lynched there.
“By the time Peter Eisenman built the Berlin memorial, there were already other sites that were talking about the names of the victims, that were talking about the years, that were talking about the places,” Rozas-Krause told me. “If you think of it in those terms, the EJI memorial really comes at a different position or a different moment of memorialization. It is maybe not the first, but it’s the first large effort to memorialize lynching and slavery in the U.S.” It has so much more to communicate, and that explains why it’s more explicit. “In a way,” Rozas-Krause said, “it is easier to be the Berlin memorial, because there are all these other historic sites that already do the work.”
The high degree of abstraction of the Berlin memorial has been the subject of controversy — over the vague and passive title (as Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, “it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why”), for example, and because it’s often used as a public space where children play and adults take selfies. But it can, in a sense, afford to take that route (with only a far less trafficked underground information center to give context) as just one of so many other efforts around the city and country.
“But EJI is different. This is a past that’s not really told, not in any sort of cohesive or very visible, public way, until now,” Sodaro said. EJI has a lot of gaps to fill; it’s “telling a story that’s not well interpreted and documented anywhere else. And so it has a really big job to do.”
And EJI has taken on an even bigger role. The organization has created a duplicate set of steel monuments and placed them, temporarily, in the field surrounding the memorial, where each one will wait to be claimed by the county it represents and to be erected at home. In challenging local communities where lynchings occurred, to take on their share of the burden to confront painful truths — in a very visible way that will make clear which have stepped up and which have not — this first major memorial seeks to alter the landscape of the South (and the country) to address our history more honestly. In other words, these hundreds of markers could begin providing a corrective to the many Confederate monuments that currently dominate Southern town squares, which have been met with protests and calls for removal in recent years.
Rozas-Krause sees this dynamic as the opposite of the one at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. “The movement, I think, in Berlin goes into that memorial, it’s sort of centralizing other efforts that are across Europe,” she explained, whereas EJI is a first endeavor attempting to activate others.
“Many Holocaust and other memorials do attempt to put some of the burden of memory on visitors as individuals, as collectives, but not in quite such a material way,” Sodaro said. She sees EJI’s project as developing existing commemorative trends and taking them one step further.
This invitation to counties to claim these monuments, and thereby their violent histories, is a new twist that she believes is possible only because the project wasn’t undertaken as a state-sponsored effort, unlike most of the memorial museums she’s studied. On one hand, those can carry more weight, presenting an officially sanctioned narrative; on the other hand, they also have limitations. When Sodaro set out to study memorial museums, she says, she was impressed and hopeful about the potential of the new form to engage with the past in a meaningful way, but her research made her more cynical.
“The really important thing to note about most memorial museums is that they purport to be really critical and reflexive and self-indicting,” she explained, but most of them “can only do that because they were created by a different regime, so they can critique and they can reflect on the crimes and oppressions of a regime that came before them” while promoting the idea that the current regime is different — and better. In both Rwanda and South Africa, there have been serious ongoing problems in the wake of genocide and apartheid, respectively. Sodaro noted that “ yet the commemorative projects are very much about tying up the past neatly and saying that we’ve moved on and we’re moving forward.” She cites Germany as an exception, but even there, the candid commemorative efforts didn’t begin in earnest until decades after the war.
That’s perhaps where EJI’s project deviates most from the efforts that inspired it. As Stevenson often says, “Slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.” Making arguments similar to those of Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow” and those that Alexander, Stevenson and others presented in Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary “13th,” named for the 13th amendment, EJI draws a straight line from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow to segregation to mass incarceration. “To not let the past be over and to not allow for that closure is really something new and different,” Sodaro said.
It’s true that Holocaust museums and memorials and other efforts around the globe “have a ‘Never again’ undercurrent,” said Jake Barton, principal and founder of Local Projects, an experience design studio that partnered with EJI on the museum. He noted that “those types of reckoning moments have never really been applied…[to] the question about enslavement in America.”
The problem is, we’ve been saying “Never again” for decades, even as genocides have continued to occur, again and again. So, in a way, not only has EJI adopted that frequently uttered phrase into an American context, but it’s also given it a new and perhaps more vigorous meaning. EJI’s version of “Never again” doesn’t simply warn against a hypothetical recurrence of past wrongs or instill in visitors a vague notion that society must be vigilant lest it succumb to the pitfalls of human nature. It doesn’t allow for that kind of distance or the satisfaction that comes with learning about terrible events and telling oneself, “I could never, and will never, stand by and let this happen.” Instead, it presents a shameful history that never ended, but rather evolved into new forms that are still causing pain and injustice today. To truly internalize the lessons of the memorial and museum, visitors must sit with the discomfort that they are in some way complicit in wrongs that continue to be committed all around them.
“The work that EJI has done has not only been to create one of the most arresting and powerful memorials to America’s history of racial violence, but also to work in concrete ways in the present to redress the continuing legacies of that history,” said James Campbell, a professor of U.S. history at Stanford University whose research has focused on how societies tell stories about their pasts, including through museums and memorials.
“We sometimes too easily pat ourselves on the back for this kind of work,” he added, citing as an example the paradox of a society erecting monuments to civil rights veterans and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act while many states are rolling back its achievements. “For me, the true challenge of this work isn’t just altering the way society tells stories about its past, but also thereby changing the matrix of political possibility in the present,” Campbell said. That means understanding how and why historical atrocities happened, yes, but also committing to activist work to address their legacies, as EJI has. “Oddly enough,” Campbell said, by invoking other efforts, Stevenson is “looking at examples that, in my opinion, haven’t done the work as well as EJI has.”
Stevenson founded EJI to provide legal representation at no cost to people on death row, to children sentenced to die in prison, to those who were too poor or too black to have a fair chance in our criminal justice system in the face of police and prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. And then EJI worked backward to reveal the roots of the contemporary wrongs it was trying to right, bringing past and present forms of oppression and the connections among them into focus with its memorial and museum. Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that the present plays a different role in this project — more explicit and urgent — than in most of the sites that served as inspiration.
“We all live in communities where the evidence of this history of exclusion and bigotry and discrimination can still be seen. And our silence about the evidence of that history is what allows it to continue,” Stevenson told me in 2017. “I’m not interested in punishing our country for this history of terror and violence. I want to liberate us. But that means we have to talk honestly about what we’ve done.”
Stav Ziv, a former staff writer at Newsweek, is senior editor/writer at The Muse.