Twenty years ago, in the shadow of a state Capitol still flying the Confederate battle flag, the nation's first memorial to the martyrs of the civil rights movement was dedicated at the Southern Poverty Law Center's office in Montgomery, Ala.
Six thousand people gathered on Nov. 5, 1989, in a city known as the birthplace of the civil rights movement, to witness the dedication of the black granite monument inscribed with the names of 40 martyrs of the movement — mostly ordinary people who gave their lives in the battle for civil rights.
In the two decades since its dedication, the Civil Rights Memorial has become more than a tribute to sacrificed lives. It has become a tool for education, an "instrument of justice" and a solemn reminder that the march for racial and social justice continues throughout the world.
"The Civil Rights Memorial is a testament to the power of everyday people to create social change through nonviolent means," said Lecia Brooks, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center. "The history told through the Memorial represents lessons of courage and commitment that continue to inspire millions of people today."
Creating the Memorial
A child's question to SPLC founder Morris Dees sparked the idea for the Civil Rights Memorial.
In 1988, Dees was speaking at a NAACP meeting following the SPLC's victory in a lawsuit against the notorious United Klans of America for the lynching of a black teenager in Mobile, Ala. During the speech, he recited the names of civil rights activists and others who were murdered by white supremacists during the civil rights movement.
Afterward, a young member of the audience approached him and asked about the people he had named — people like Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo. Who were they? On the way home that night, Dees decided that the SPLC should build a monument to the martyrs of the movement so that their sacrifices would never be forgotten.
Shelton Chappell visits the Memorial for the first time. He has devoted his life to finding recognition for his mother, Johnnie Mae Chappell, who was killed during the Movement.
Listen to a musical performance by Shelton Chappell.
"Each name is a history lesson, and we are saying, don't just think of the deaths, but think of a movement of ordinary people who just got tired of injustice," Dees told The New York Times in 1989.
The SPLC commissioned Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, to design the monument.
In preparing to build it, the SPLC researched deaths during the era considered to be the modern-day civil rights movement — from May 17, 1954, the day the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, until April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Selected were victims who fit at least one of three criteria: They were murdered because they were active in the movement; they were killed as acts of terror aimed at intimidating blacks and civil rights activists; or, their deaths, like that of Emmett Till, helped to galvanize the movement by demonstrating the brutality faced by African Americans in the South.
The research yielded 40 names. They ranged in age from 11 to 66. Eight were white, and 32 were black. They came from all walks of life — students, farmers, ministers, truck drivers, a homemaker and a Nobel laureate.
Their names were inscribed on a circular, black granite table that chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock.
"You really begin to see a cause and effect and how people actually helped to change history," Lin said in "A Strong Clear Vision," a 1994 documentary about the artist.
Lin left a blank space between the first and last entries on the Memorial timeline — to signify that the struggle for human rights began well before 1954 and continues to this day.
Water emerges from the table's center and flows smoothly over the top. Behind it, water cascades over a curved black granite wall. Engraved on the wall are words from the Bible's Book of Amos that King quoted on several occasions: "…until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Lin said when she came across the quote in King's "I Have a Dream" speech, she knew water would become part of the Memorial, an element providing a sacred and soothing atmosphere to the site.
The finished Memorial shares a quality with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin said. They both present an honest acceptance of death as a path to healing.
"You have to accept and admit that pain has occurred in order for it to be healed, in order for it to be cathartic," Lin said.
They were the relatives who came to see their slain loved ones honored.
They were the civil rights leaders who came to see the movement remembered.
And they were the modern-day activists who recognized the work that remained.
They were all among the thousands who attended the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial. It was a day, to paraphrase Lin, to recognize a memorial to hope.
The SPLC's first president, Julian Bond, spoke of the hardship and sacrifice endured by the martyrs but reminded the crowd they had not gathered in sorrow.
"(The martyrs) gave an equal measure of devotion so that all of us might be free," said Bond, who is now an SPLC board member. "Buried with each is a bit of American apartheid, for their deaths kept the movement marching on. That is why we honor them today not in sorrow, but in celebration."
Relatives of the martyrs filled the crowd, representing 39 of the 40 names. Several were among the speakers: Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of Michael Schwerner; Mamie Till Mobley, mother of Emmett Till; Chris McNair, father of Birmingham bombing victim Denise McNair; and Myrlie Evers, widow of Medgar Evers. Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, was also present.
"Poetry in granite," was how Carolyn Goodman described the Memorial to The Associated Press in 1989. Her son, Andrew Goodman, who was shot to death during Freedom Summer in 1964, is included among the martyrs.
"Nobody who sees it cannot feel that it's a moving, moving piece of art," she said. "It brings that period so vividly alive that you can almost relive it."
The sentiment was echoed by Mobley, who described in her autobiography the experience of touching her son's name on the Memorial.
"It was like touching my son. Like reliving his funeral," she wrote in Death of Innocence. "But, as I told people there, it also filled me with such joy to see Emmett honored, to see him included among the martyrs of the movement."
The Memorial also touched Karen Reeb, whose father, the Rev. James Reeb, was beaten to death after he marched with King in Selma.
"It just eases the emptiness in my heart," she told Time magazine.
James V. Evers, one of Medgar Evers' children, said the highlight of the ceremony was meeting the relatives of the other martyrs.
"It brought us together," he told The Boston Globe. "There is now a bond between us."
An 'Instrument of Justice'
The research conducted for the Civil Rights Memorial went beyond simply preserving the stories of slain martyrs; it helped revive decades-old civil rights cold cases.
At the time of the dedication, most of the family members in attendance still waited for justice for the killing of their loved one.
Many of the murders remained unsolved because of the callous indifference, and often the criminal collusion, of white law enforcement officials in the segregated South. The whole criminal justice system — from the police, to the prosecutors, to the juries, and to the judges — was perverted by racial bigotry. Blacks were routinely beaten, bombed and shot with impunity. In many cases, such as the murder of Till, suspects were brought to trial only to be set free by sympathetic white juries.
The stories of the martyrs were compiled by the SPLC and published in the book Free at Last to provide thorough and compelling accounts of the crimes, in many cases still unsolved, that were fading from memory.
For one Mississippi journalist, the book became a guide to follow as he dedicated his career to investigating civil rights-era cold cases. The research, including files on 75 other suspicious deaths of the era, also has been used by a special FBI unit dedicated to solving cold cases from the era.
"The Memorial stands as a reminder that the martyrs' killers walked free, even though everyone knew they were guilty," said Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. "After it was dedicated in 1989, it transformed into an instrument of justice."
Free at Last was a rich resource for Mitchell — "my road map on my journey into reinvestigating these cases," he said.
Mitchell's extensive reporting led to several successful prosecutions:
• Byron De La Beckwith went to prison for life in 1994 for the assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in 1963.
• Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers was sentenced in 1998 to life in prison for killing NAACP official Vernon Dahmer in 1966.
• Bobby Frank Cherry went to prison in 2002 for life for planting a bomb in a Birmingham church that killed Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson in 1963.
• Ernest Avants was sentenced in 2003 to life in prison for killing Ben Chester White in 1966.
• Edgar Ray Killen went to prison in 2005 for 60 years for helping orchestrate the killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964.
• James Ford Seale went to prison for life in 2007 for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Moore and Henry Dee in 1965.
All of those victims are among the 40 martyrs listed on the Civil Rights Memorial.
Since the Memorial was dedicated, authorities in five Southern states have re-examined 26 killings — making 15 arrests that led to 11 convictions. Seven of those convictions were for 12 murders chronicled on the Memorial.
A Teaching Tool
A Tibetan Buddhist monk, based in southern India, and friend visited the Memorial in December 2002.
They come from across the globe.
Each year, the Civil Rights Memorial attracts more than 20,000 visitors. Civil rights activists from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America have found inspiration at the Memorial. Others have included the Memorial as a poignant part of their vacation or family reunion. Students of all ages have visited it to learn about the movement and modern human rights struggles.
Since 1998, the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage has brought nearly 150 members of Congress to the Memorial as part of an annual tour of historic civil rights sites.
"This is a special and sacred space," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., leader of the congressional delegation and a veteran of the civil rights movement who was beaten during the pivotal Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. "They gave their blood, and ... we gather here to remember them."
President George H.W. Bush cited the Memorial when he signed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act on April 23, 1990, saying it reminded him that the mission of the civil rights movement — justice for all — had not been fulfilled. "Bigotry and hate regrettably still exist in this country, and hate breeds violence, threatening the security of our entire society," he said. "We must rid our communities of the poison we call prejudice, bias and discrimination."
The Memorial was also recognized in 2000 by President Bill Clinton after it was rededicated to the memory of Johnnie Mae Chappell. Chappell was shot on a roadside in 1964 in a random act of terror in Jacksonville, Fla., by whites seeking to intimidate the black community.
"[Y]ou are helping us to learn from the hard lessons of our past so that, together, we can build One America — a society where we can embrace our diversity, respect our differences, and unite around our shared dreams and values," Clinton wrote for the occasion.
In 2005, the SPLC added the Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC), further transforming the site into more than a commemoration of the past. The visitor center, housed in the SPLC's former office, includes interactive exhibits and a powerful 20-minute film — "Faces in the Water" — about the martyrs and the movement. It also recognizes current struggles for equality and offers visitors an opportunity to pledge their commitment to justice and equality by adding their name to the Wall of Tolerance. It has become a powerful teaching tool for school groups and others.
"That's not just my name up there [on the Wall of Tolerance]," said Lauren, a 13-year-old student from Rhode Island. "Behind it is a pledge to do anything I can to keep racial injustice from continuing to grow. My name is a symbol of one more person taking a stand on what they know is right."
Inspiring children was exactly what Dees and the SPLC had in mind when imagining a memorial to those who died for equality.
"As visitors touch the names on the Memorial and see their own faces reflected in the water, we hope they contemplate what they can do in their lives to make 'justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,'" said SPLC President Richard Cohen. "It's up to each of us to ensure that the march for justice continues."