For better and worse, Montgomery, Ala., is one of our country’s most historic cities. During the two centuries since its official founding in 1819, events that unfolded in the capital have played a central role in shaping modern America. But change is often difficult and the process can be painful. What is perhaps the most significant piece of Montgomery’s recent past—the Civil Rights Movement—exemplifies this truth. As the epicenter of the civil rights struggle, the city was host to some of its best moments—and some of its worst. What’s striking today is the candor with which the city is examining all the complexities of its history.
In April 2018, Montgomery celebrated the opening of its National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its Legacy Museum. Those events marked a profound shift for the city. For decades, some locals avoided looking back with an unflinching eye. But now, thanks to the bright light the memorial and museum are shining on the racial injustices that took place in Montgomery and across the country, the city is showing it’s no longer afraid to confront the burden of its history.
Created by the Equal Justice Initiative, a criminal justice reform nonprofit founded by attorney Bryan Stevenson in 1989, both the museum and memorial share compelling stories, tales of truth that need to be told to help heal the still-visible wounds of hate and fear. (Stevenson’s story is itself being told, in an HBO film True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality and an upcoming feature film, Just Mercy, slated for a 2020 release.)
The museum’s location is part of its message: It occupies a former slave warehouse on Coosa Street downtown, the same thoroughfare once used to move enslaved Africans from the boat docks to the slave auction at Court Square. Using video, photo and other exhibits, the museum dramatically highlights the connections between slavery and more modern racist phenomena such as lynching, mass incarceration of African Americans and police violence. “It helps you understand some of what has been done, the horrible injustices, and it made me mad,” says Montgomery mayor Todd Strange.
On a long, sloping hill not far from the museum, the memorial is a powerful blend of sobering brutality and serene reflection. At first impression, with its clean lines and elegant symmetry, it could be taken for a work of public art. Visitors walk down a U-shaped path underneath hundreds of coffin-shaped steel rectangles suspended in air. A closer look at the rectangles reveals a litany of engraved names of African American victims of lynching across the United States. As the sheer volume of names becomes clear, the memorial’s purpose, to remember the horrific prevalence of lynching in American history, inescapably reveals itself.
Walking through the memorial for the first time was an experience that left Strange overwhelmed but optimistic. “It’s so moving, and for me at least, it felt different than the museum,” he says. “I came away with a determination that we must truly come to terms with this American tragedy. I sensed a call to action, a call for reconciliation.”
Resident, Ashely Taylor, a CPA at a local accounting firm, echoes Strange’s sentiments. “The memorial is very sobering,” she says. “It’s horrible that our country treated people that way.” The Houston native, who has lived in Montgomery since graduating from Auburn University Montgomery, believes the memorial is inspiring examinations of the city’s past that may not have happened otherwise. “The people that I know, we’re more willing to talk about it, and because it’s so close to us, it’s easier to have those conversations,” she says.
Open dialogue is key to changing the white narrative about race relations in our country, and the memorial is provoking similar reactions in other residents, according to Strange. “‘Wow’ has been the word I’ve heard the most, particularly in reaction to the memorial,” he says. “I’m seeing a real hope that I believe will drive our future. I’m very thankful Bryan gave us that opportunity. It’s a gift.”
It’s a gift that has had ripple effects, according to Kalonji Gilchrist. The Montgomery native’s “day job” is in IT, but in 2016, he started an organization called 21 Dreams Arts & Culture Collective to give local emerging artists a platform. “What the museum and memorial have done is increase the freedom to express social change and other complicated issues with art,” Gilchrist says. “Both have opened the doors wider and made social justice topics more accessible. That, in turn, has broadened the audience for the social change stories that many of our artists are telling.”
On the heels of the memorial and museum’s one-year anniversary, the energy radiating from them only seems to be growing, and it’s changing people’s perceptions of Montgomery. “People who don’t know us, who’ve never been here, are now seeing us in a more positive light,” Strange says. Taylor also sees evidence of this improved image. “I manage our recruiting practice here at my firm, and Montgomery for a long time had this negative stigma, but my job as a recruiter has gotten easier” because of Stevenson’s work, she says.
Beyond greater understanding and deeper dialogue, the memorial and museum have also brought quantifiable economic benefits. A surge in visitors related directly to both sites is the most visible: In their first year, more than 400,000 guests visited them. In 2018, Montgomery sold 107,000 more hotel room nights than in 2017; tourism-related expenditures rose by 15.5 percent.
The feedback that Dawn Hathcock, vice president of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and president of Destination Montgomery, hears is praise of not just the memorial and museum but of the city itself. “Visitors are impressed that Montgomery is not hiding from its past,” she says. “We are now talking about it so we can move forward and grow. The museum and memorial have put Montgomery on the national stage for all the right reasons and in front of people who might not have even considered coming to our city or Alabama.”
It’s her job to know what tourists think, but Hathcock believes the new additions are having an even greater impact on residents. “When you live in a place, you start to take things for granted,” she says. “You don’t think about the fact that world-changing history happened on the streets where you live. Seeing and hearing what visitors have to say helps us remember what a special place this is.”
Mayor Strange claims that transforming people’s impressions of Montgomery and drawing more visitors does more than increase civic engagement and add tourism-related dollars; it’s also priming the pump for enhanced economic development. “The memorial and museum give us the chance to tell our other stories too, to show we are more than our past,” Strange says. “Some of these visitors are obviously company executives and business owners, and they’re seeing what we offer on those levels. We are saying ‘Look at what we are doing now, look at our business climate and the tech boom happening here.’”
Strange has welcomed several prominent CEOs and board chairmen from Fortune 500 companies who’ve made the trip to Montgomery to tour the museum and memorial. They see a city on a path to a more inclusive, prosperous future. “Who knows what that turns into?” the mayor says.