- Say Their Names
The most important African American history museum in the United States is not the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC. The NMAAHC, which opened in September 2016, just in time to be counted as an Obama-era achievement, is now the largest repository of the nation's memories of the African American experience. A national museum dedicated to the experiences and contributions of African Americans was first proposed in 1915 by Missouri congressman Leonidas Dyer. Nearly a century later, after disputes over a location, leadership, and funding were resolved, ground was broken in 2012. Architecturally, it is the most visually arresting edifice on the Smithsonian campus. African Americans flock there from all over the country—families, church groups, fraternities and sororities, scout troops, and school groups wait months for a ticket and meticulously plan their visits to Washington, DC, around their allotted date and time entrance. Grandparents share their memories as they walk through the exhibits; ordinary people with no museum training become docents, critiquing and analyzing the information in the display cases and on the placards based on family lore and their experiences. It has proved to be immensely popular, the third most visited museum on the Smithsonian campus in 2019.1
The NMAAHC may be the most prominent African American history museum in the country, but it is not the most important. That honor goes to the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum. Opened in April 2018, nineteen months after the NMAAHC, the Legacy Museum and its companion site, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, have garnered national and international attention because of their focus on chronicling the history of lynching in the United States. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, the eleven-thousandsquare-foot museum is situated in one of the many low-slung whitewashed buildings that housed businesses associated with the state's most important [End Page 961] and profitable antebellum industry: human trafficking. The location (Alabama) and focal point (lynching) make the museum and memorial unlikely tourist attractions, but in 2018 they were among the most visited sites in the state. They drew more than 250,000 visitors in the first six months they were open and are being credited with driving traffic to other tourist sites around the city.2
The purpose of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice sets them apart from the NMAAHC. The NMAAHC and other history-focused museums present the past in an uncomplicated fashion that helps patrons manage the material being presented. The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, however, use the exhibits to present an argument that is succinctly stated in the full title of the museum: "The Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration." The Legacy Museum presents exhibits that clearly and unambiguously show the ideological and institutional connections that link the kidnapping and enslavement of people of African descent, their subsequent marginalization and oppression, to the contemporary manifestation of those processes in the criminal justice system. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice presents the consequences of systematic oppression by commemorating the lives of men, women, and children who were lynched by and with the approval of local law enforcement, the justice system, and the communities where these crimes took place.
The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice were built by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a civil rights organization founded by Bryan L. Stevenson. Stevenson has devoted his legal practice and his life to defending prisoners on death row and children sentenced to life in prison. Stevenson began his career working for the Southern Center for Human Rights in 1985 and founded the EJI in 1994. Since then, he has defended prisoners on death row who committed crimes as juveniles, a punishment the Supreme Court eventually ruled unconstitutional. He also defends prisoners on death row in Alabama, a thankless task in a state that has the highest rate of death sentences in the country.
Stevenson is an unlikely leader...