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Local View: With each accounting, hope for the future

I thought I was prepared.

David TryggestadI watched videos about the planning of the new national memorial in Montgomery, Ala., for victims of lynchings. I read the book about the lynchings in my hometown Duluth, which occurred on June 15, 1920. I viewed scores and scores of online photos of lynchings and slide shows accompanying the song made famous by Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit," its lyrics including, "black bodies swinging in the southern breeze." I twice co-led a course on African heritage literature for University for Seniors.

I thought I was prepared.

But my first step under the roof of the memorial took my breath away. I wanted to avert my eyes, but everywhere I looked, there they were: the first several hundred of 800 rectangular steel columns, the shape of coffins, each about six feet high, streaked and rusted in varying hues of brown, each with the name of a county where lynchings occurred, each with the names of the victims etched in a column below, with a date assigned to each name, the date of the mob execution.

The memorial is open-air, just as lynchings were. Along the first corridor, perhaps some 20 feet wide and 100 feet long, the columns hang just off the ground, affixed from the ceiling on slender poles of steel, like hard ropes. The columns are my height; thus I looked as if eye-to-eye directly at the name of the county. "Bolivar County, Mississippi" was the inscription of the first one I examined. I could trace with my finger the letters of the names of the 14 victims.

"The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth." Billie Holiday's song haunted me. Fourteen sets of bulging eyes. Fourteen twisted mouths. The columns are staggered in a way so that I could not pass from row to row of victims without being confronted by another column directly ahead of me in the next row. Another collection of bulging eyes, as if following me, as if accusing me, as if demanding an accounting.

The second corridor makes a 45-degree right turn, and immediately the floor begins to slope and drop before me. I am walking into the bowels of a slave ship. As I descend, the columns rise above me, as the ceiling remains level throughout the memorial. No longer open on both sides, the wooden walkway is enclosed by concrete walls that rise up, as if entombing me. I look up, and the scores and scores of columns seem to sway overhead.

"Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze."

The second corridor gives way to a third, with yet another right turn, with a seemingly deeper descent, the columns rising higher and higher, the individual names now difficult to make out, but the county names prominently etched into the bottom of each.

Mercifully, some benches are built into the wall in this corner. People sit silently to reflect, some to weep.

Billie Holiday's song comes to me again: "Here is fruit for the crows to pluck. For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck. For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop." As I sit here, I imagine that, when the wind blows, the wailing of some 4,500 victims and their loved ones can be heard.

The end of the third corridor takes me suddenly outside, where I see row upon long row of columns, replicas of those hanging inside the memorial, lying side-by-side, as if coffins awaiting burial, as if forbidden to be interred in a cemetery not for blacks. Each column is waiting to be claimed, claimed by the county represented by each, to go "home," to be received back into the communities where the atrocities were committed, to be erected to stand face-to-face with the descendants of the murderers, to demand an accounting.

And with each accounting, an acknowledgement, a step toward healing and reconciliation. Hope for the future.

David Tryggestad is a retired pastor who was a part of the "Alabama 35" from Duluth who visited the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for victims of lynching. The group traveled in April to the Montgomery, Ala., memorial.