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There Are No Words For This

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The guns fell silent on the War Between the States 155 years ago this month.

But for some they never fell silent.

America is among the world’s most beautiful countries and has many sites worth seeing. Cities and towns. Mountains, plains, and beaches. Rivers and lakes.

America also has many inspiring museums and monuments, large and small, that all Americans should experience if they can.

One museum and one memorial are particularly worth seeing. Yet they aren’t beautiful. Nor is “inspiring” the right word, except to the extent that visitors come away committed to not letting history repeat itself.

The museum stands in downtown Montgomery. The memorial stands on its outskirts. The official names are the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The names aren’t quite the best fit for the sites. That may be one reason the former is unofficially called the Lynching Museum.

As a visitor who has just been to both turns in his rental car at an airport, he talks with a rental-car-company employee who may well be a descendant of slaves.

The visitor is rattled from his experience that day. He shares his experience with the employee.

“There are no words. There are no words,” she says, shaking her head at the history that the museum and memorial convey. Referring to the sense of being rattled, she adds, “It’s going to take you a few days to get over this.”

She was right.

Neither the museum nor the memorial are for the faint of heart. To convey truth, both have to be this shocking.

The museum’s exhibits are too numerous to chronicle here. Yet among the first exhibits is one on the history of the slave trade.

Federal law banned importing slaves after 1808, yet the domestic slave trade continued. As if they were livestock, families were ripped apart, and enslaved people were bred to produce the next generation of bigger, stronger slaves.

Other exhibits detail additional experiences of the enslaved during slavery itself.

Still other exhibits describe their lives and their descendants’ lives afterward.

One photo is of a black person and her son hanging from a bridge. White people stand on the bridge as if they were posing for a town picture, oblivious to the injustice and immorality of what had just occurred.

Another photo is of similarly oblivious white people with black feet dangling above them.

Yet another is of three people, each seated. In the middle is a black person with a heavy noose around his neck. He is flanked by two white people who look like they are posing with an animal they have just trapped and are about to slay.

On the outskirts of Montgomery, the memorial includes jars of earth from sites where lynchings occurred. Each is labeled.

Along a walkway is a commemoration of blacks who were killed and “reasons” for it. One black person was lynched for having been acquitted — yes, acquitted, not convicted — of murder.

Others were lynched for more mundane “reasons.” One black person sought to date a white person. Another didn’t step aside to let white people pass by. Another didn’t address a law-enforcement officer “properly.”

The memorial also has a few statues. At the beginning of the walkway is an instruction not to pose for photos with them. A memorial guard confirms that some visitors really do need to be told this. Posing for such photos is disrespectful. It’s also a sign that those posing aren’t taking this seriously enough.

The horror of this story is numbing. Just numbing.

It’s not surprising that visitors to the museum and memorial are disproportionately black. Yet all Americans who can visit Montgomery should experience the museum and memorial.

All Americans.

Randy Elf is a former law clerk to a federal district judge in Mobile whose docket included the local school-desegregation action.

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