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Museum tracing legacy of slavery in America marks moment for 'truth-telling'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking about how the Supreme Court is addressing some of this country's most contentious topics, like abortion and religion. Now we're going to go to Montgomery, Ala., where a new museum that just opened this weekend is taking a very big, hard look at another of this country's most radioactive matters, the history of slavery and racism. It's called The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. And it's actually not quite new. It first opened in 2018, but it's now been expanded to four times the original footprint to some 40,000 square feet.

It's the latest project of attorney Bryan Stevenson, who is known for his groundbreaking legal work in behalf of death row prisoners through the Equal Justice Initiative and his bestselling memoir, "Just Mercy." The museum is an extension of his other passion project, pushing Americans to look at how slavery has shaped American history, including how America chooses to deal with crime and punishment, and most especially incarceration. That work also includes a memorial to victims of lynching, also in Alabama. But today, we want to focus on the museum and how it all came together, so we've called Bryan Stevenson once again. And he's with us now.

Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Oh, it's my pleasure. Happy to be with you.

MARTIN: So congratulations on the opening - or the expansion of the previous museum, which is dedicated to - well, the memorial, of course, is dedicated to honoring the lives of victims of lynching. And there was a smaller museum attached to it. I'm just wondering, what prompted the expansion? What more did you feel needed to be said?

STEVENSON: Well, there was so much content we couldn't include in the first space just because of the size. And I do think we're at a moment where we're debating whether we're going to be honest about our history, about our past and learn from it, reckon with it and move forward, or we're going to double down on silence and these false narratives. And I just felt like this was a moment that required more from cultural institutions. The first museum didn't talk about the transatlantic slave trade at all. So a lot of our visitors would come, and they'd see the slavery conversation starting in the South and didn't appreciate that Massachusetts was the first state that legalized slavery, that Boston and New York City and Rhode Island and Connecticut were major slave trading spaces. And we just had a ton more content like that that we wanted to share with visitors.

MARTIN: There is significance to the location that you've...

STEVENSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Chosen for the museum. It's my understanding that it's built on the grounds of a former cotton warehouse. Can you tell a little bit about why it's situated there and what is the significance of that?

STEVENSON: The new museum is on the site of a former cotton warehouse where thousands of enslaved people were forced to labor in bondage. It's on a street that was two blocks from the rail station where hundreds of enslaved people landed each day in Montgomery, were put in chains and paraded up that street where they were assessed for purchase, commodified. And I do think there's something powerful when you're standing in these spaces learning about this history, knowing that the soil you're standing on is the same soil where enslaved people sweated. It's the same soil where Black people were lynched and bled. It's the soil where, in the '50s and '60s, African Americans were humiliated and found a way to fight. And I think it's important that the authenticity of this space be a part of the experience.

MARTIN: One of the things that strikes me about the opening of the museum, this - the reopening of it - is that this is taking place at a time, as you alluded to earlier, when there has been this really aggressive move against talking about the history of slavery, the history or the origins of kind of racism in America in schools.

STEVENSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: I think most people listening to our conversation know that there's been this kind of furious backlash against something called critical race theory, even though, you know, this is not something taught commonly in elementary schools or middle schools or even high schools. And so I'm asking - you know, it's interesting that your - the museum is opening against the backdrop of this kind of furious backlash against talking about these issues. I'm just interested in what your - you know, your take on that.

STEVENSON: You're right. When I moved here in the 1980s, 59 markers in - to the confederacy and not a word about slavery. And when we tried to put up our markers around slavery, we had historical associations saying, oh, that's going to be too controversial. And that's because we have practiced silence for so long.

What I'm encouraged by is that we've had hundreds of thousands of people come to the site since we opened in 2018. And most of them say, I didn't know this. But not only have they come, they've left with a new understanding about what we have to do to make progress in this country. I don't want to talk about slavery and lynching and segregation because I want to punish America. I want us to get to a better place. I want there to be real liberation.

I believe there's something better waiting for us. There's something that feels more like freedom in this country. There's something that feels more like equality, feels more like justice. But we can't get there if we continue believing these false ideas about our greatness, about our fail - that we never made any mistakes, we never did anything wrong. And I actually hope that this moment illustrates the importance of this conversation that we're trying to have about a time for truth telling.

MARTIN: You know, I really want to ask you a blunt question here, which is, how did this come together? And how were you able to pull this off, given the fact that you had such a hard time even putting up markers at the beginning of this journey?

STEVENSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I'm wondering how you manage a 40,000 square foot museum.

STEVENSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm just - and given how contentious this has been in some quarters, you know, donors, I mean...

STEVENSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...I'm imagining. So...

STEVENSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: So do you mind if I ask, like, how did you pull this off? Was it all just private - was it private funds?

STEVENSON: It's all private funds, yes. But, you know, it's interesting. We were very covert when we did the memorial because I didn't know what to expect. And I think the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have come, that not only have we survived this, but there's been this kind of openness, this hopefulness, this excitement about what we can represent, I think there's much more enthusiasm for the kind of work we're doing now from places that I wouldn't have expected, you know, three or four years ago. And that's an important part of the story. And people often say, well, why aren't you doing this in Washington? Why don't you do this someplace else? And I actually like doing this in a place like Alabama. If Montgomery, Ala., can create cultural institutions that honestly confront our history, if we can bring millions of people to this community who are reckoning with this history, there's not another city in America that can say, well, they can do that in Montgomery, but we can't do that here.

MARTIN: Obviously, nobody is being forced to come to visit The Legacy Museum. But for those who have that position that they don't want to know or they don't want to hear about or they think it's just too painful, they don't feel it has anything to do with them, is there - if you had the opportunity to speak to them, what would you say?

STEVENSON: Ignorance is not a solution to conflict. It is not a way forward. It is not the way you cope and survive. It's not the way you move forward. Every time we break some barrier - going to the moon, creating cures for diseases that had been with us forever, finding ways to create better energy sources - all of those things came with pushback, where people saying, you can't do that. You shouldn't do that. It came with some discomfort. I don't know why when it comes to education, we feel like discomfort is not allowed. Scientists that found the cure for a vaccine for this pandemic had to work really hard. People that are breaking barriers in so many sectors have to work really hard to break those barriers. But when they do, doors open. Opportunity happens. Possibility is realized. And that's what ought to excite every American.

MARTIN: That was Bryan Stevenson. He is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. His latest project, The Legacy Museum - the newly expanded Legacy Museum opened its doors this weekend. Bryan Stevenson, thank you so much for talking to us once again.

STEVENSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.