Memorial designed to help viewers understand the dark history of lynching in America

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- On Thursday, visitors will be able to follow an important and unfortunate narrative in our nation's history. Those who walk the grounds of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery will find the way it is designed, is just as crucial.

A dark part of American history stares you in the face as you enter the memorial, a statue of slaves chained together, one holding a baby.

The site, honoring more than 4,400 documented lynching victims, has an intentional design. "You have to go past the slavery sculpture because you can't understand lynching without understanding slavery," says Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

The square memorial is divided into three corridors. Stevenson says the first corridor is meant to feel intimate, it's a space where you can read the names of victims and touch the six-foot monuments.

"The physical relationship you have with the history has to be something that is dynamic," says Stevenson.

Those monuments begin to rise in the second corridor reflecting the advertised violence and terror by lynchers.

Montgomery's proximity to the Alabama River and new methods of transportation, like the steamboat, made it one of the largest slave centers in the country. The slave population in 1860 was ten times greater than it was just 40 years earlier at almost 24,000.

Shirah Dedman and her family, descendants of a lynching victim, did not understand the weight it held. "It wasn't really until you really start to understand what lynching is, and we were reading -- and I've read about lynchings before, I've seen pictures and it still didn't impact me."

The family is glad the memorial will be there to help educate others.

"It was widespread everywhere to tell people, 'beware, don't step out of line,'" explained Dedman.

As you enter the third corridor, the monuments loom overhead.

"I think we should feel shadowed and haunted by this history. It should hang over us until we address it with sufficient commitment," says Stevenson. "I just believe there is a better America still waiting, there's a more just America still waiting."

The memorial also features sculptures, quotes, poems and informational plaques as visitors make their way through the site. It opens to the public Thursday, April 26.

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