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Civil Rights Memorial uses water in striking monument to victims

Tiny drops of water flow down her fingers and fall to the basin below. At the same time, an almost unnoticeable tear rolls down her cheek and slips into the water.  It’s as though she has become part of the slowly moving stream.

The Civil Rights Memorial has a way of doing that.

People want to touch it. And that’s what they are supposed to do.

Dedicated in the fall of 1989, the monument is a striking black granite memorial commissioned by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It sits outside the center in downtown Montgomery, Alabama.

Montgomery is, of course, the inevitable site for the memorial. This town is both the capital of the Confederacy and the birthplace of civil rights.

But there was no one specific memorial to the civil rights movement and the era it was about. In the spring of 1988, the Southern Poverty Law Center contacted architect Maya Lin about such a memorial for civil rights victims. Lin also was the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Lin spent months doing research and thinking about the civil rights movement, an era she said she had learned little about in school. Lin later wrote that she was unaware that so many people had given their lives for civil rights.

“I was also horrified to realize that many of these murders had taken place during my lifetime and that I didn’t know about them,” she wrote.

The inspiration for the memorial came during a plane trip to Montgomery in 1988. Reading through some research material, Lin came upon some words King had used in his “I have a Dream” speech.

King also had used those words eight years earlier at the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. Paraphrasing a verse in the Bible, King said, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.'”

Water, Lin decided, would be her carrier of truth.

A curved black granite wall is engraved with the Biblical quote used by King. Water spills down the wall at waterfall speed, reflecting the people in front of it.

The second part of the memorial is a 12-inch-diameter circular tabletop resting on an asymmetrical pedestal. Etched around the table’s perimeter are 53 entries, radiating like a sundial.

Twenty-one of the entries report landmark events in the civil rights movement. Forty entries describe individual deaths. Between the first and last entries is a space to represent civil rights heroes who died before or after this period and others whose stories were not known when the memorial was created.

Entries include:

~ Aug. 28, 1955, Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old boy on vacation in Mississippi from Chicago, reportedly flirted with a white woman in a store. That night, two men took Till from his bed, beat him, shot him and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.The jury accused them for murder.

~ June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, who directed NAACP operations in Mississippi, was leading a campaign for integration in Jackson when he was shot and killed by a sniper at his home.

~ Sept. 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were getting ready for church services when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing all four of the school-age girls. The church had been a center for civil rights meetings and marches.

~ Sept. 15, 1963, Virgil Lamar Ware, 13, was ridingwith his brother on a bicycle  in Birmingham when he was fatally shot by white teenagers. The white youths had come from a segregationist rally held in the aftermath of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

~ June 21, 1964, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner, young civil rights workers, were arrested by a deputy sheriff and then released into the hands of Klansman who had plotted their murders. They were shot and their bodies were buried in an earthen dam.

~ Feb. 26, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten and shot by state troopers in Alabama as he tried to protect his grandfather and mother from a trooper attack on civil rights marchers. His death led to the Selma-Montgomery march and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Visitors to the memorial can touch the names of the civil rights dead and see themselves in the water flowing over it. The water rises from a hole in the tabletop and flows over it evenly. The table is only 31 inches high, deliberately accessible to children.

As an outdoor monument, the Civil Rights Memorial never closes. In the several times I have visited, I have never been there when some other stranger wasn’t also there. Some of them are playful children, some teenagers who stand quietly, some people who pause for only a moment, some adults and older folks who often spend a long time reading the inscriptions.

Almost always, visitors touch the moving water. Their hands create ripples which seem to transform the memorial, perhaps in the same way those names inscribed have helped change our nation.

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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