It may be a museum that makes viewers want to look away, with its solemn memorial to the thousands of men, women and children murdered — lynched — in countless acts of domestic terrorism. But facing truth must come before reconciliation, before Americans can clearly see where the tribalism that continues to threaten unity can eventually and inevitably lead.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening this week in Montgomery, Alabama, is one step toward acknowledging the complicated truth of an America that too many still want to see as all glitter, an unvarnished march toward liberty and justice for all. Of course, the existence of the memorial does not mean those who most need to see it will be planning a trip any time soon.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has been drawing crowds in its prime spot on the National Mall since it opened in 2016. I’m not sure how many members of Congress have been among them, though I would bet that particular roll call is nowhere near 100 percent.
Putting on blinders halts any progress we can hope to have as a nation. And it is all too clear that it is impossible to move forward when so many leaders and citizens are mired in competing visions of the country’s past.
The memorial is opening in a state that just celebrated Confederate Memorial Day, honoring those who fought in a war that nearly split the country in two over the issue of enslaving fellow human beings. We’ve been fighting that war ever since, through Jim Crow laws that mandated everything from where African Americans could live, work and learn to a criminal justice system that is unequally enforced. We’ve been fighting it from the schools to the courts to incarceration.
Who would think that states are still arguing over the monuments that were erected long after the Civil War, during segregation and the civil rights movement, as a rebuke to any who would question white supremacy? Yet the state legislature in Tennessee recently punished the city of Memphis, which discovered a legal way to thwart a state law and moved its Confederate monuments from public spaces. The GOP-dominated House took away $250,000 earmarked for the Memphis bicentennial next year.