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Social justice groups' monuments are a counternarrative to Confederate memorials

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The debate over removing Confederate memorials from the public square has been part of the national conversation for a decade or more. Now two social justice groups are putting up new interactive monuments to try to provoke racial reckoning. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: More than a million people have visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., since it opened four years ago. It's a project of the Equal Justice Initiative that remembers thousands of lynching victims. Their names are etched on 800 steel blocks, one for each U.S. county where racial killings occurred. The monuments hang from an open-air pavilion on a hilltop overlooking the Montgomery skyline.

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ELLIOTT: Now director Bryan Stevenson is expanding the memorial.

BRYAN STEVENSON: We call this new section Community Reckoning because it's the way in which communities are asking localities to kind of reckon with this history.

ELLIOTT: Lynching violence was local, Stevenson says. Here, visitors can learn more about some of those killings. Detailed stories appear on historical markers that look like the ones you might see along a highway. They are duplicates of ones that local groups have erected around the country, based on research from the initiative.

STEVENSON: This one is in Brighton, Ala. It's about a Black man who was lynched for trying to organize Black workers to get better pay. And as we...

ELLIOTT: There are markers from Orlando, Denver and Tulsa. The new exhibit also includes a sculpture by the artist Branly Cadet called "Arise." It shows community activists. One is speaking into a bullhorn; others appear in prayer or reflection. Stevenson says the models for the piece were all descendants of lynching victims.

STEVENSON: They represent the work that people in communities are doing each and every day to get their locality to reckon with the history of violence that took place.

ELLIOTT: According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 300 community coalitions have put lynching markers in 20 states. But Stevenson says the effort has not been embraced everywhere.

STEVENSON: It's been harder in some communities than others. But I think that's just the nature of trying to respond to a 400-year history of silence. And so I'm not even surprised by the resistance. And you see this new - some of these new efforts to try to ban the teaching of history. But I think that's always been the reaction to progress.

ELLIOTT: He points to the emergence of Jim Crow laws after Reconstruction and the violent resistance to the civil rights movement. Activists say the country is at an inflection point again, as more people find their voices after the racial justice protests of 2020.

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ELLIOTT: Another monument is newly on display in Montgomery, also aimed at advancing the social justice conversation. It's a sculpture called "Blank Slate" by the Ghanian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my God, I can't believe this is happening now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK, so go ahead and engage with the sign.

ELLIOTT: Four figures are stacked to represent the historical suffering of African Americans. An enslaved man in shackles is at the base, supporting a Black Union soldier, a noose around his neck. Above him is a woman with a baby on her back. She carries a beacon and holds up an interactive sign that receives messages via a Wi-Fi signal.

MORRIS SINCLAIR: She's holding a blank slate, which means that you can write whatever you want to write on the sign.

ELLIOTT: That's Morris Sinclair with the Blank Slate Movement. He says it embodies resilience.

SINCLAIR: It's like almost as if the civil rights movement has just begun again with the new generation.

MICHELE BROWDER: I'm energized by it.

ELLIOTT: Michele Browder leads civil rights tours in Montgomery.

BROWDER: To see this woman with a baby on her back, holding a lantern, lighting the way, to, you know, the continuation of this movement to let us be free.

ELLIOTT: The "Blank Slate Monument" is touring the country and will be in Montgomery for three months at the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial Center. The memorial center's director, Tafeni English, says this sculpture comes as a counternarrative to Confederate monuments and as a response to new state bans on critical race theory instruction and the teaching of what some politicians consider divisive concepts.

TAFENI ENGLISH: How is it that you want to hold on to one segment of history and silence the other?

ELLIOTT: Montgomery bills itself as both the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and there's rich history around nearly every corner. But it's taken decades for sites associated with the slave trade, for instance, to get equal attention to those that glorify the Old South. Now they do.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.