Memorial Corridor at the National Memorial for Peace & Justice

Photo courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative
Equal Justice Initiative's Peace and Justice Opening Week on April 25-27 included the first Peace and Justice Summit, and the grand opening of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

It was a gray April morning in Montgomery, Alabama as a crew of 33 Road Scholars on our Civil Rights program made their way downtown. The bus was quiet and solemn, and by the time the group arrived at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the clouds opened, and a heavy rain began to fall. “It was pouring rain, but it didn’t dampen our spirits,” said participant Marian Johnston (Road Scholar Class of 2009).

Road Scholar group leader Camilla Comerford planned the schedule so the group could be among the first 100 people to enter the new memorial on its opening day. “The rain set the tone and made it even more moving,” said Camilla.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was created by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), led by EJI founder and civil rights litigator Bryan Stevenson and designed by Michael Murphy of the Boston-based MASS Design Group.

From afar, the memorial appears to be a square-shaped pavilion supported by 800 pillars. But as you enter the memorial, it becomes clear that these pillars are actually weathered steel plaques suspended from the memorial ceiling to represent the 4,400 African American men, women and children murdered by mobs in 800 counties in America from 1877-1950. Each plaque bears the name of the county and its victims.

The memorial stands to acknowledge America’s history of racial terror, to remind us of our racial inequalities and to promote social justice.

“It was unlike any other program I’ve ever led,” said Camilla. “It was just so moving.”

Because of the rain and the early hour, the Road Scholars had the opportunity to experience the memorial without the crowds and had access to the docents who shared the intention and history behind the memorial.

A statue depicting the slave trade at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama

ABOVE: Photo courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative

“It was awful and wonderful at the same time,” said Marian. “It’s unbelievable that people have done this to each other.” She described the design of the memorial as “striking.” “The plaques are hung at the same level, but the walkway goes down, so it feels like they’re rising,” she said. “You try to read all the names, but there are so many—you can’t comprehend them all.”

The Road Scholars’ visit was made even more special when a participant spotted the journalist and social activist Gloria Steinem. “I went over to her, introduced myself and asked her to walk through the memorial with us,” said Camilla. “Some of the participants spoke with her. It was something we’ll never forget.”

Marian said that she and her husband loved all of the surprises on the program. They had heard about the new memorial but weren’t sure that they’d have the chance to visit it until they arrived. Then, they got another surprise when their Road Scholar group was invited to attend the memorial’s opening-night reception, where U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis spoke, along with EJI founder Bryan Stevenson.

Photo of John Lewis

Above: U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis

“Hearing John Lewis speak was amazing,” said Marian. Coincidentally, Marian and her husband had read Lewis’ book, “Walking into the Wind” before the program, which made it even more meaningful for them.

Marian hadn’t heard of Bryan Stevenson before but was blown away by his speech about the need for a reconciliation period in the U.S. “He spoke with such love and confidence. “It was just inspiring.” She encourages folks to read Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy” — which she read when she returned home — and which shares a similar message as the one Stevenson shared in his speech.

The reception ended with a performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” by Patti LaBelle.

ABOVE: Road Scholars in Montgomery, Alabama

The group also visited the Legacy Museum on the grounds of a former slave warehouse near the memorial and also created by EJI. They explored the story of racial injustice in America, from enslavement to mass incarceration, through interactive media, sculpture, videography and exhibits.

Marian, who practices civil rights law, was interested in experiencing the Civil Rights Movement program to see up close and personal where civil rights history was made. But she encourages any Road Scholar to experience this program. “It’s probably the best Road Scholar program we’ve been on,” she said, “and that’s saying something because we’ve been on some good ones.”

Visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on Heart of the Civil Rights Movement: Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham. Join us for a moving experience in Alabama and beyond.

  • I’ve been looking at this program.  What a special experience for this group!  One of the things I love about Road Scholar is the “inside” access you are able to have during the programs.  I was fortunate enough to meet Sandra Day O’Connor and Julian Bond on a voyage to South America, as well as Lynda Bird Johnson Robb & her husband Chuck Robb on another voyage  between Cape Town & Hong Kong.  

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