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National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new memorial in Montgomery, Ala., honors thousands of people killed in racist lynchings.

Rewriting the Story of Civil Rights

A Marshall Project journey to Montgomery, Alabama.

What does it mean to “change a narrative?” Bryan Stevenson has been insisting on the importance of changing the narrative on criminal justice since he published his best-selling book, “Just Mercy”, in 2014. He’s a death penalty lawyer who likes to say, “We have a system of justice that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.”

The notion that locking up more bad guys makes us safer is hard to shake. Law-and-order rhetoric has a new friend in the White House, with an attorney general who wants to double down on harsh sentences. And Stevenson, with the opening of a new museum and lynching memorial that I attended in Montgomery, Alabama, last week, has chosen a more revolutionary approach to fixing criminal justice than the skilful lawyering for which he’s well known. He is rewriting the history of the civil rights movement.

To those who follow criminal justice, Stevenson’s new narrative may not sound so new. Lawyer Michelle Alexander argued in her influential 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow”, that white supremacy was never fully vanquished, as slavery gave rise to the horrors of the Jim Crow south. Virulent racism survived the civil rights movement, too, as Jim Crow morphed into a criminal justice system that continues to lock up African-Americans disproportionately. Millions have read Alexander’s book, or seen the video version of it in Ava Duvernay’s 2016 documentary, “13th”.

Stevenson is also trying to spread this narrative beyond the criminal justice cognoscenti. His TED talk has been viewed nearly 5 million times, and he has indefatigably toured college campuses and corporate headquarters in recent years, making the case for mercy. Stevenson, who sits on the advisory board of The Marshall Project, once told me that he turns down the majority of the media requests that come his way. Instead, delivering a stump speech that verges on sermon, he seems to be trying to change America one auditorium at a time.

Montgomery now has a bricks-and-mortar version of this narrative. The new lynching memorial in Montgomery sets out the scope of the crime: more than 4,400 African-Americans were killed by mobs between 1877-1950. But it’s the Legacy Museum that brings the civil rights story right into today’s headlines. Exhibits greet the visitor with huge ribbons of text such as “Slavery was justified with false notions of black inferiority,” and proceed through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and into the criminal justice system. Almost literally: the visitor can sit in phone booths that mimic the experience of a video visitation with someone in prison. The message is clear. The civil rights movement isn’t over.

Stevenson has decried the “three-day carnival” story of civil rights: Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat; Martin Luther King, Jr led some awesome marches; and then the laws changed. That narrative is common in civil rights museums around the country, and they have been proliferating. Atlanta, Birmingham, and Greensboro, North Carolina all have such museums; one opened in Mississippi last year, and another is due in Charleston in 2020.

Will this new museum change the civil rights narrative in the very institutions that have been established to guard it? Maybe. My kids and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis one August when the air outside was hot and sticky. The museum inside was chilly as an icebox, and the exhibits presented a narrative that seemed frozen, too: a stirring account of marches, protests, and events long past. We looked, we shivered, and we left.

On the way out of town, in a post office in an African-American neighborhood, we got chatting with the clerk. He pointed out Memphis’ main city park was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early member of the Ku Klux Klan, and suddenly the civil rights narrative melted right into the present day.

That park was renamed in 2013, though, and the statue of Forrest was removed in December. Narratives have a way of zigging and zagging. The Montgomery Advertiser ran a mea culpa editorial last week with the opening words, “We were wrong.” It went on to recount the details of local lynchings and acknowledge the paper’s own shameful coverage of them, saying “We take responsibility for our proliferation of a false narrative regarding the treatment of African-Americans in those disgraceful days.” What about these days? The lock-em-up narrative still exerts a heavy pull on the national imagination. It’ll be interesting to see how the Montgomery Advertiser now covers the criminal justice system in Alabama, and beyond.