The Sins of Our Past Laid Bare


Photos by the Equal Justice Initiative

From the late 1800s to at least 1950, over 4,000 African-Americans, many in the South, were lynched for the pettiest of "crimes." Among the documented murder victims were a man walking behind the wife of his white employer, a man using inappropriate language with a white woman, a woman chastising white children for throwing rocks at her, a woman accused of stealing a ham, a man rejecting a white merchant’s bid for cottonseed, a man writing a note to a white woman, a man who didn’t use "mister" while addressing a white police officer, and a construction worker asking a white coworker to return his shovel. At each lynching, hundreds or thousands of white people came in their Sunday best to watch. They would pose for smiling photos with their children, enjoy picnics and lemonade, and sometimes later drag the body through black neighborhoods, cutting off and collecting body parts as souvenirs. This, says Bryan Stevenson, is "the history of America too few know, or want to acknowledge."

Thursday saw the opening in Montgomery, Alabama of the extraordinary, overdue National Memorial for Peace and Justice, an outdoor museum dedicated to those black victims of lynching. A project by Stevenson and the legal-advocacy Equal Justice Initiative, or E.J.I., the memorial consists of 805 rusting steel columns, suspended from ceilings like dead bodies at eye level, geometrically arranged on a grassy hill. Each column bears the names of African-Americans lynched in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950, and the county where they were murdered. There are also walls of neatly labelled jars of dirt, dug up from victims' graves. Because lynchings stemmed directly from slavery - another dark, much-ignored  chapter in American history - the exhibit's entrance features a gut-wrenching sculpture of anguished slaves in chains and shackles. An accompanying Legacy Museum connects the dots of America's racism, from slavery to mass incarceration and police brutality.

The memorial was pointedly located in Montgomery, a city shaped by slavery where slave warehouses and markets were scattered downtown. The city is working to make amends: The day of the memorial's opening, the Montgomery Advertiser's front page featured the names of the city's hundreds of lynching victims with the headlines, "Time To Face the Past" and "Our Shame: The Sins of Our Past Laid Bare For All To See." It also ran a series, "Legacy of Lynchings" - the human suffering, lack of accountability, victims' stories, and its own long indifference to "the terror." For Stevenson, the goal, especially at a time of inflamed racial divisions, is to address that indifference. With emotional visitors flocking to the site - deeming it "shattering...haunting...devastating...gruesome but beautiful - it grabs you by the throat, but makes sure not to choke you" - he hopes it can become "a place of healing...the start of a truth and reconciliation process - but truth first."

Stevenson stresses the need to "acknowledge when we don’t do what we are supposed to do” - to confront a deeply racist past now mirrored in today's mass incarceration, police brutality and surge of white supremacy, and in the narratives about black bodies around them. The parallels resonate in a reflection space at the memorial dedicated to Ida B. Wells, an African-American teacher, journalist, suffragist, civil rights pioneer and "all-around bad-ass" now being re-honored with a street, monument, and belated obit in a New York Times that once called her “a slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress." Born a slave in 1862, Wells became the first person to research and document over 700 lynchings in the South - traveling alone armed with a pistol - in order to challenge the mainstream media narrative that black men were rapists and lynchings were justice. A prescient forerunner to Black Lives Matter, she called lynching "color-line murder" in a searing 1909 speech to the National Negro Conference, noting, "Only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible." “We want everyone to understand this history,” says a persistent Bryan Stevenson. “There is a better America still waiting."

Ida B. Wells. Photo from Chicago History Museum/Getty

This week also marks the 79th anniversary of Billie Holiday recording "Strange Fruit." Never again.

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