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Memorial honoring lynching victims to open Thursday in Montgomery

MONTGOMERY, Ala - Following years of research, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) preps for the opening of their National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The memorial honors the thousands of African Americans lynched in the United States.

"We haven't addressed the legacy of slavery and history of racial inequality in the way we need to," said EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson.

He wants to bring the conversation to the forefront, especially in a region that regularly celebrates and remembers the mid-19th century. He says we owe it to each other to tell the whole story to better reconcile and move to a more just nation.

Stevenson says it's not about placing blame, but about bringing people together by confronting it.

"We're not defined by it or doomed by it, but we can't ignore it. I'm not interested in punishment, I'm interested in liberation."

It's a two part opening, featuring the memorial and the Legacy Museum.

The memorial features hundreds of hanging markers, each represents a county. Each county's marker lists the names of documented black lynching victims. Multiple north Alabama counties are listed, including Madison, Colbert, Jackson, Limestone, Lawrence, and Morgan.

Some date back to the 1800s, some are as late as the 1930s. Some don't even have names, but Stevenson wanted to acknowledge every victim they could verify.

The Legacy Museum is in Montgomery's downtown, and sits where an old slave warehouse once stood. Slaves were brought from the nearby riverfront and held at the warehouse, with cotton and livestock, until they were sold at the popular town square.

The museum takes visitors from slavery to racial terrorism to segregation to mass incarceration, and connects them all as the narrative that systemically discriminates against people of color.

Stevenson says everything from the architecture of the memorial to the order and placement of exhibits in the museum is intentional, so visitors can better see the big picture.

"I hope this institution, our museum and our memorial, motivates a lot of people to say 'never again,' said Stevenson. "When they say 'never again,' I hope they actualize that by creating a society where we can truly achieve more justice, more equality, more fairness."

EJI also brought the Dedman/Myles family to the museum and memorial from California. Shirah Dedman's great grandfather, Thomas Miles, was accused of giving a letter to a white woman. He was found not guilty, but didn't make it home that night.

"He was released out the back door of the jail where, by many accounts, there was a mob waiting for him and they strung him up and shot his body," she said.

Her mother and aunt explained their family tree remains splintered, as Miles' immediate family dispersed to different parts of the country to flee the looming danger. Generations later, the family has changed their last name from Miles to Myles, and have extreme disconnects and an unreconciled past.

They say it is often not discussed, because following a lynching, the blame and shame is placed on the person who is lynched, and not with the mob that killed them.

They know other families like theirs exist, and hope talking about this dark era can help repair families and race relations.

"We need to shift the narrative," said Dedman. "We need to understand and acknowledge it for the horrific thing that it is."

The EJI encourages all people to visit the memorial and museum. It opens to the public Thursday. Multiple events and concerts are planned around its opening.