Home > Uncategorized > A New National Monument – posted 4/29/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/3/2018

A New National Monument – posted 4/29/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/3/2018

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor under the title “New Memorial Forces an Honest Accounting of Lynchings”.

On April 26, a new national monument came into existence. In Montgomery Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened. The memorial commemorates the victims of lynching in the United States.

The Equal Justice Institute, also known as EJI, a non-profit legal and civil rights group led by lawyer Bryan Stevenson, has been the moving force behind the memorial. EJI created the memorial on land where a slave warehouse once stood. The memorial is located on high ground about a mile from Alabama’s state capitol building.

The memorial, set on six acres of land, includes 805 coffin-shaped boxes of oxidized steel hanging from a square canopy. Each box is inscribed with the names of lynching victims and the county in which they were murdered. The design evokes bodies hanging from trees.

EJI has studied and documented 4,384 lynchings in the United States between 1877-1950 and they say that there were thousands more that have never been chronicled. They are still gathering information about previously unknown murders. EJI did six years of research and made numerous visits to southern states to record lynching data.

Murders of African-American people included being hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned and getting beaten to death by white mobs. The deaths were mostly lynchings but other horrible deaths are also reported.

A new accompanying Legacy Museum also created by EJI is located nearby in Montgomery. The Legacy Museum describes and exhibits our slavery history from early times to our present era of mass incarceration. It must not be forgotten that slavery lasted for centuries and caused vast, untold human suffering.

For any student of American history, the opening of this memorial must be recognized as long overdue. Our national monuments tell a story but a big part of the story has been left out. The lynching memorial is a necessary corrective.

Up until now, there has been no public acknowledgement of the wrong done. The sites of lynchings have been forgotten, ignored, and covered up. At the same time, hundreds of monuments in the South celebrate the Confederacy.

The problem here goes very deep into the way American history is taught and remembered. As a high school student at a good school, I remember my American history classes. There was a large void between the Civil War and World War I. Reconstruction was mentioned and there was that strange, close election in 1876 but my history classes passed over that era. I do not think that is uncommon in the teaching of American history.

The lynching memorial forces an honest accounting. And the truth is brutal. Lynchings were not isolated events carried out in the dark of night by renegade Klansmen. They were often public community events, attended by many thousands. People dressed in their Sunday finest and whole families went to watch the spectacle. Police, doctors, lawyers, clergy, teachers and working people – all the pillars of the community – attended.

Many photographed these events and made postcards of the images. The perpetrators sometimes distributed body parts as souvenirs.

Frequently, it was not enough to hang the victim. Mobs would torture, mutilate and set the bodies of lynching victims on fire. Then the perpetrators would sometimes drag what was left of the bodies through the streets. Women were lynched as well as men. About the lynchings, Stevenson has said,

“They actually lifted up the bodies because they wanted to terrorize. They wanted the entire community to see it.”

Those responsible were never punished and local police did not intervene to stop lynch mobs from taking the law into their own hands.

The reasons why people were lynched often bordered on the absurd. Failing to address a police officer as “mister”, drinking from a white man’s well, bumping into a white girl accidentally, attempting to vote, land ownership, an uppity look, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time could lead to getting lynched.

If a black man so much as talked to a white woman, he could be accused of rape and could end up, lynched. Racist lynchers always claimed they were protecting white women.

Stevenson describes what he calls an advanced coping strategy of silence about lynching. To quote him:

“If I asked the question, “Name one African-American lynched between 1877 and 1950, most people can’t name one person. Thousands of black people were lynched. Can’t name one. Why?”

Lynching is a buried history, an untold story. There is a legacy of indifference to these crimes. The historian Sherrilyn Ifill, an expert on lynching, wrote that Southern whites of that era would typically lose all memory of the lynchings they attended. Afterward, they would claim they saw nothing. As Ifill has written, that silence about the lynchings and who carried them out was seen as an act of loyalty to the white community.

After the Civil War, for the Black community, expectations rose. Black men now had the right to vote. However, the white power structure wanted to send a message: for anyone who challenges white supremacy, we will kill you. And they did.

The late nineteenth century migration of Black people from the South to the northern states can, in part, be explained by the racial terrorism practiced by white communities in the South. To live in these circumstances was to live in fear. The threat of becoming the next lynch mob victim was omnipresent.

Bryan Stevenson describes the lynching memorial as “an act of ending silence and committing to truth and reconciliation”. He has said that the museum and memorial were directly inspired by the Apartheid Museum in South Africa and the Holocaust Museum in Germany.

Part of the virtue of the lynching memorial is that it entirely bypasses the bitter debate about the dismantling of Confederate statues. It is an affirmative statement that adds to historical understanding. At a time of resurgence of the alt-right and white supremacists, the memorial offers a powerful counter-narrative.

Without question, Bryan Stevenson is one of the most inspiring people in American public life. I plan a road trip to Montgomery to visit the lynching memorial and I would strongly encourage others to make the journey.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Autherine Smith Scholl
    April 30, 2018 at 2:13 am

    You, too, are an inspiration.

    • April 30, 2018 at 5:35 pm

      Thanks Autherine. You are sweet.

  2. Debbie
    May 1, 2018 at 5:25 am

    Thank you for helping to spread the word about this much-needed memorial and museum.

  3. dunktankdisability111
    May 2, 2018 at 4:21 am

    Lovely article. I saw a piece on 60 Minutes about the memorial. I’d love to go.


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