Alabama Museum Seeks to Change American Narrative About Race

She had traveled to Alabama all the way from California to be here for this moment.

She had managed to stay dry in a torrential downpour that would have forced many others away. Had somehow beat the odds, got in line early, and secured one of the sold-out opening day tickets for access to The Legacy Museum.

So it was a surprise to Isoke Femi that the hardest thing for her to manage were the words to describe what she had just witnessed.

“My experience in there… is so painful,” she said exiting the exhibit.

Site of slave warehouse

Built on the site of a slave warehouse in downtown Montgomery, once the epicenter of the slave trade in the United States, in a town that at one time was the capital of the Confederacy, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is filled with visual exhibits that serve as a catalyst for understanding what many blacks in the United States have historically endured.

“Five-thousand blacks were lynched between 1880 and 1940,” said civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was an early supporter of the museum and the nearby National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new memorial that sits on a grassy, six-acre hill overlooking Montgomery.

It is the first memorial and museum of its kind in the United States, tackling subjects such as racial terrorism and lynching.

Founded by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization working in marginalized and impoverished communities, the group hopes the Memorial and The Legacy Museum will help change the national narrative about race.

“We must face the truth of our origins,” Jackson told VOA in an exclusive interview immediately following his own trip through the museum in its opening hours. “We are a post-genocidal, post-slavery, post-Jim Crow society.”

​Facing the past

But not a post-racial society, says Mark Potok, former senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, who spent much of his career tracking hate groups in the United States.

“It is white people in this country, and in the South in particular, who are so averse to facing the past squarely,” he said.

Potok says racism and bigotry, particularly in Alabama, which now hosts this museum and memorial, are not yet consigned to the history books.

“It’s worth remembering that 15 years ago, a very short time ago, the majority of white people in Alabama voted to keep segregated schools in the state constitution,” Potok said.

Jackson says it’s not just Alabama.

“And even today … 200 attempts to get federal anti-lynching legislation has not passed,” he said.

Speaking to the impact of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, he hopes “this will give us a deeper narrative … and we will seek to become better. At the end of the day, we must educate and enlighten us. Not make us get behind more barriers.”

Change at the ballot box

The biggest barrier in Jackson’s mind today is the one keeping people from the ballot box.

“There are 4 million blacks in the South unregistered to vote,” he said.

Mark Potok agrees with Jackson, and believes the best way to bridge the racial divide in the United States is to vote.

“You know, it’s not beating up white supremacists on the streets of Charlottesville,” he said. “It is really changing the people who represent us.”

Isoke Femi, still reeling from her walk through the images and displays that deal with powerful and uncomfortable truths long avoided, sees hope in the crowds around her.

“The love it took to do this, the commitment, the courage, and the fact that everybody is here that it’s not just something that black people are coming to. Everybody is here. And even if they can’t find the words … they want the healing of America.”

In that healing, Jesse Jackson hopes there is also a lesson.

“We must learn to live together,” he said. “And that is one of the great challenges of our past.”