Prior monuments to victims of oppression: Monuments to state-sanctioned crimes, abuses of power, and systemic injustices are rare, particularly in the United States. More often than not, monuments recall triumphs of one kind or another and commemorate victors in war or other contests. But there are times when nations or communities find it right or expedient to recall, mourn, and honor the struggles of those whom it has victimized, injured or destroyed. As a tribute to the thousands of Cherokee Indians killed during a notorious forced march in 1838, the National Park Service administers a more than 2,000-mile Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
The era of Jim Crow and the lynching of African-Americans in the 20th century, is commemorated by a number of small plaques and historical markers, as well as by a memorial plaza and sculptural group in Duluth, Minnesota dedicated in 2003. That monument however, recalling the lynching of three black men in 1920, was already superseded by a less tangible monument conceived a generation earlier in Bob Dylan’s song “Desolation Row” (1965) which contains a twelve-line verse dedicated to the event. Dylan’s song, in turn, recalls “Strange Fruit,” the great, anti-lynching anthem written by Abel Meerpol and first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Other notable monuments to working class victims of oppression include the monument to the murdered Homestead iron and steel workers, (erected in 1941 by the Steel Workers Union), the Haymarket Martyr’s Memorial in Forest Home Cemetery, and the uncompleted monument at Haymarket Square in Chicago. In Santiago, Chile, a Museum of Memory and Human Rights recently opened, memorializing the torture committed under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Some monuments to victims and survivors reverse established or official perspectives on a conflict. For example, while Maya Lin’s famous Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, commemorates U.S. soldiers who died in the US War against Vietnam with a wall of names that you can touch, Harrell Fletcher’s memorial titled The American War brings a Vietnamese perspective to the conflict by exhibiting photographs from the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (There, the Vietnam war is referred to as “the American War.”)
The best known victim monuments are of course those dedicated to the murdered Jews of Europe, the most famous of which is Peter Eisenman’s Berlin Holocaust Memorial, consisting of 2, 711 rectangular, concrete slabs of varying heights arranged in a grid on a nearly five-acre site near the Brandenburg gate, costing approximately 25 million Euros to build. However Berlin also contains a far less monumental and expensive remembrance of the victims of Nazism: Gunter Demnig’s Stoplersteine or stumbling blocks. These are small, brass-covered concrete blocks inscribed with the name, date of birth, date of deportation and final fate, (if known), of people seized by the Nazis. There are now about 3,000 in Berlin alone, and another 20,000 in towns and cities across Europe. Each monument, set flush with the pavement in front of the victim’s house, is paid for by private donations, costing about 100 Euros a piece. Micha Ulman’s Bibliotek Monument on Bebelplatz Square in Berlin is a different kind of Holocaust memorial, commemorating the Nazi book burnings that began in 1933, and the destruction of art, literature and wisdom itself.
As the summary above indicates, monuments to the victims of violence and oppression can take many forms. We might have added that there are innumerable small ex votos (or votive offerings) in churches or homes dedicated to saints or deities, made in honor of a deceased loved one. In addition, there are roadside commemorations – sometimes consisting of nothing more than bouquets, balloons or stuffed animals — of people killed by car crashes, bicycle accidents, crimes and political violence. In Argentina beginning in 1977, the Mothers of the Disappeared marched every day at the Plaza de Mayo in silent protest over the government’s abduction of their children. They became a living monument, and their almost three decades of protest helped not only to galvanize opposition to the Argentine dictatorship, but to help launch many other protest movements – especially for women’s rights and gay rights.