Memory and Atonement: Why America Needs a Lynching Memorial

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Memory and Atonement: Why America Needs a Lynching Memorial

Have you ever read about lynchings? America has a long history of racial injustice and racist violence, but perhaps the most disturbing is the long era of racial terror lynchings that began after the Civil War and lasted until the 1960s, when thousands of black people were murdered by vicious mobs of racist whites.

Some white people might hear the word “lynch mob” and think of it as a regrettable but understandable aspect of an earlier, more violent era in American history; like an Old West sheriff’s posse going after a gang of dastardly horse thieves, or an outraged community acting out of impatient but righteous vengeance when the legal system could not ensure an orderly process of justice. But many lynchings were not at all related to criminal justice; and while some white people were lynched, the vast majority of lynching victims were black. And the worst lynchings—the most intimately personal, cruel and barbaric—were carried out by white communities against black men who were accused of raping (or even being involved in consensual sexual relationships with) white women.

Many black men were lynched who had committed no crime at all. Black people were lynched for something as innocent as accidentally bumping into a white person on the sidewalk or, as in the case of 14-year-old Emmett Till, in 1955, for whistling at a white woman. The white lynch mobs were sending a clear, insidious message to black people: if you step out of line—if you disrespect, question, or attempt to change the white racist power structure in even the smallest ways—we will exact a hideous, agonizing vengeance upon your body.

Have you ever read about what happened at lynchings? American racial terror lynchings were some of the worst conduct that human beings have ever committed. Black people were beaten, hanged, shot, burned alive, tortured with hot irons, castrated and torn apart (white people kept pieces of the victim’s body, such as toes or ears, for souvenirs). Lynching victims’ families were harassed and forced to flee for their lives; sometimes their homes were firebombed.

Most of these white lynch mobs operated with impunity, if not with the full cooperation of local law enforcement and white religious authorities. Lynchings were treated as a team sport and celebrated with a carnival-like atmosphere; part ballgame, part church picnic. Some lynchings attracted crowds of thousands of white people who traveled from miles around, bringing their children; the white lynch mob members even took photos of themselves posing, unashamed, without masks, with smiling faces, in front of hanged, burned, dismembered black bodies and then sent these mob-murder scene photos as postcards through the U.S. mail. Lynch mob attendees even wrote handwritten messages on the lynching photo postcards, such as “This is the barbecue we had last night.”

Have you ever looked at photos from a lynching? They’re some of the most repulsive, morally repugnant images ever created, right up there with the Nazis’ photos of their victims during the Holocaust. Something snaps inside of your brain when you see a charred black body surrounded by a smiling white mob. When you see a twisted black body writhing in agony in a pile of smoldering hot coals, surrounded by smiling small town/rural white people who probably went to church every Sunday and thought of themselves as good, moral “Christian” people, it makes you question the core underpinnings of what we call “civilization” and the fundamental character of humanity. Maybe there really is something fundamentally wrong with America; maybe we really are doomed as a species. In the photo of a lynching victim, we’re seeing things that human beings were never meant to see; we’re witnessing the actions of the ugliest people in American history at their absolute worst.

And yet, white people in 2016 would be letting ourselves off way too easy just to say, “lynchings are in the past” or “it happened a long time ago” or “America is a better place now; we’ve elected a black president!” Because even though black people are no longer being murdered in the streets in front of braying crowds of thousands of white people, in many ways we are still living in the America that lynching created.

Racial terror lynchings were a major impetus behind the Great Migration of black people moving from the rural South to the industrial cities of the North during 1930s-1960s. The reason why so many black people in those years moved from places like Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana to places like Chicago and Detroit and New York wasn’t just because they were searching for better jobs—they were fleeing for their lives from white racist terrorism against black people. The reason why so many Northern U.S. cities are still so heavily racially segregated today is in part because of the racist housing policies and reluctance of Northern white people to share their neighborhoods with black newcomers from the South; lynchings helped teach Americans to live in a climate of racial fear, and taught white people to treat black people as a permanently alien element within our own shared country; as a pathological, frightening underclass that needed to be constantly subjugated by law and kept in line by force if necessary.

You can draw a straight line from the bloody lynching scenes of the 1930s South to the racially discriminatory “red lining” that kept black people in the “ghettos” and out of “good” Northern suburban white neighborhoods from the ‘60s to the ‘80s to the gun-fueled murders that are happening in (predominantly poor, black, inner city) neighborhoods in cities like Chicago today. It’s heartbreaking to think that so many black people fled racist violence in the south during the 1930s-1950s, only for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to die of racism-enabled gun violence in the north today. As one of my most talented Facebook friends once said, “Black-on-black crime is just white-on-black crime with a black middle man.”

The legacy of lynchings lives on today in the way the U.S. criminal justice system treats black people, in the way that black people are often treated with greater suspicion or with less sympathy; the way that black people are presumed to be violent, or criminal, or guilty—even black children like 12-year-old Tamir Rice (shot to death by police for playing with a toy gun in a park). This is particularly evident in the way that the U.S. administers the death penalty. Just as lynchings predominantly were directed at black people, black people have been disproportionately condemned and executed by U.S. states that still use the death penalty, especially when the black person was convicted of killing a white person—just like lynching, the U.S. system of capital punishment values white life more than black life. Even aside from the obvious moral reasons why the death penalty is wrong and ought to be abolished, America is clearly incapable of applying the death penalty in a non-racist way.

Jordan Steiker, professor at University of Texas Law School, was quoted in a recent New Yorker article as saying that “In one sense, the death penalty is clearly a substitute for lynching. One of the main justifications for the use of the death penalty, especially in the South, was that it served to avoid lynching. The number of people executed rises tremendously at the end of the lynching era. And there’s still incredible overlap between places that had lynching and places that continue to use the death penalty.”

The legacy of lynchings lives on in our hearts and in our actions, whether we realize it or not. Every time a white person locks their car doors when stuck in traffic in a “scary” black neighborhood; every time a young black man crosses the street to avoid police for fear that they’ll stop him and accuse him of wrongdoing even though he’s innocent; every time we stigmatize interracial relationships; every time white people and black people regard each other with fear and distrust, we are re-enacting the legacy of lynchings and continuing the shameful story of one of the worst parts of our country’s history.

Bryan Stevenson is trying to change all of this. A civil rights lawyer in Montgomery, AL, Stevenson runs an organization called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) that provides criminal defense services to poor defendants on death row, among other efforts. Stevenson and his EJI organization are also planning a new national memorial to the victims of lynching, which they hope will cause America to face and atone for its history of racist violence. Called the “Memorial for Peace and Justice,” the lynching memorial seeks to commemorate the lives and sufferings of more than 4,000 known victims of racial terror lynching in 12 states. The lynching memorial will be located in Montgomery, a city that has dozens of monuments to Confederate Civil War leaders, but until now, no memorials for black victims of racist brutality. Along with the lynching memorial, there will be a new museum called “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” (located 150 yards from one of the south’s most prominent slave auction sites) about the connections between the history of slavery and the present-day challenges of mass incarceration, police violence, and other criminal justice issues that disproportionately affect black people. Both the lynching memorial and the museum are due to open in 2017.

As Bryan Stevenson was quoted as saying in the New Yorker, “Our society applies a presumption of dangerousness and guilt to young black men, and that’s what leads to wrongful arrests and wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences, not just wrongful shootings. There’s no question that we have a long history of seeing people through this lens of racial difference. It’s a direct line from slavery to the treatment of black suspects today, and we need to acknowledge the shamefulness of that history.”

White people in America are often too quick to assume that we are innocent of America’s bloodstained history of racist annihilation against black people. “My family never owned slaves, why should I feel guilty” or “slavery ended a long time ago; why can’t black people just get over it” or “we elected a black president twice; surely America is not such a horrible racist place anymore” are all sentiments that otherwise well-meaning white people might feel. But the truth is, until America does more to learn about, acknowledge and act upon our shared history of racist violence against black people—and the baggage that we are all carrying as a result of this history—we will not be able to move forward as a truly egalitarian, just, democratic society that values and supports the human potential of all of our people.

To see a powerful animated video from the Equal Justice Initiative about the history of racial terror lynchings, click here.

If you want to support the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, please donate here.