[The new lynching memorial confronts the racial terrorism that
corrupted America—and still does. ] [https://portside.org/] 

 THE PAIN WE STILL NEED TO FEEL  
[https://portside.org/2018-05-04/pain-we-still-need-feel] 

 

 Jamelle Bouie 
 May 1, 2018
Slate
[https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/05/a-new-lynching-memorial-confronts-americas-history-of-racial-terrorism.html]


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 _ The new lynching memorial confronts the racial terrorism that
corrupted America—and still does. _ 

 , Jamelle Bouie 

 

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA—On Thursday, the National Memorial for Peace and
Justice opened in Montgomery to remember the thousands of Americans
who were hanged, burned, or otherwise murdered by white mobs. The
memorial sits just a short drive from the state capitol building,
where three days earlier, the state of Alabama had celebrated
Confederate Memorial Day, an official state holiday. It’s a city
where slave traders once sold children for profit, and where slave
owners would later launch a rebellion, and form a government, on the
conviction that slavery was necessary, inviolable, and good. It’s
the same city where, in living memory, a sitting governor pledged his
total commitment [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RC0EjsUbDU] to
segregation in the face of an unprecedented civil rights struggle, and
where—in the present—more than 30 percent
[http://alabamapossible.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/AP_PovertyFactSheet_2017.pdf] of
black people in the area live under the poverty line.

The central structure of the memorial is a looming cloister where 800
steel columns hang from the roof. On each column is a state, a county,
and the names of everyone lynched there, along with the dates of their
deaths. The columns start at eye level, but as you walk through the
memorial, the floor descends and the structures hang like so many
victims. You, the visitor, become a kind of witness to the ritualistic
murders that claimed at least 4,000 black Americans between 1877 and
1950 [https://eji.org/reports/lynching-in-america]: from the collapse
of Reconstruction to the beginning of the end of Jim Crow. The scale
of that killing becomes clear in an adjacent room, where replicas of
those hanging steel structures are placed like coffins on the ground,
arranged in alphabetical order for visitors who want to find the one
that marks their town or county.

For me, two markers mattered: Ware County, Georgia, and Gadsden
County, Florida, where my mother and father are from, respectively.
Four people were lynched in Ware and four people in Gadsden—the
earliest in 1881, the latest in 1941. Walter Wilkins, killed on June
27, 1908, in Ware County’s seat of Waycross, had been accused of
assaulting a young white girl. It is difficult, for me, to express the
feeling of finding the columns that mark your origins—seeing the
names of the victims and imagining the terror and fear that must have
coursed through those communities. And thinking, too, that the most
recent killings happened within living memory of people you knew, or
who knew your parents and grandparents.

Racial hierarchy and inequality still exist
[https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/19/upshot/race-class-white-and-black-men.html] today,
but Jim Crow is gone and the public, socially sanctioned violence that
defined the lynching era has largely disappeared. Which may lead some
to ask _why_? Why dwell on this painful period of American history?
Why fight to bring this unspeakable violence into the national
consciousness? And why work to integrate it into public memory when
lynching remains an incredibly fraught metaphor for racial conflict,
with heavy symbolic baggage that weighs on any conversation around the
subject?

The answer is straightforward. We live in a moment when
racism—explicit and unapologetic—has returned to a prominent place
in American politics, both endorsed by and propagated through the Oval
Office. And in that environment, a memorial to racial terrorism—one
which indicts perpetrators as much as it honors victims—is the kind
of provocation that we need, a vital and powerful statement against
our national tendency to willful amnesia.

The victims of lynching and racial terrorism deserve a memorial that
makes plain the scale of the offense and the magnitude of the crime.
The communities in question deserve a chance to reckon with the weight
of their history. And Americans writ large need an opportunity to
grapple with this period as we struggle to understand a present that
contains disturbing echoes of our not-too-distant past.

The first level of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. /
Jamelle Bouie

Neither the memorial nor the museum shies away from calling lynching
what it was—“racial terror violence.” _Terrorism_ is a loaded
term, but Bryan Stevenson, whose nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative
organized and built the memorial and the accompanying Legacy Museum,
embraces it and its implications. “When a black person was lynched,
they were not just lynching that person, they were targeting the
entire African-American community,” said Stevenson. “Nobody thinks
that the 9/11 perpetrators were just trying to kill only the people
who worked at the World Trade Tower. They were trying to terrorize the
rest of us, and that’s the reason why we felt justified in fighting
a war. I look at the exodus of 6 million people who flee the American
South during this period as victims of lynching, even though they
weren’t strung up. And in that respect, you have to use the
word _terrorism_ to characterize this violence.”

Both the memorial and museum show how widespread and wanton this
campaign of violence could be. “Elbert Williams was lynched in
Brownsville, Tennessee, in 1940 for working to register black voters
as part of the local NAACP. Reverend T.A. Allen was lynched in
Hernando, Mississippi, in 1935 for organizing local sharecroppers.
Jack Turner was lynched in Butler, Alabama, in 1882 for organizing
black voters in Choctaw County.”* By highlighting “offenses”
like labor and political organizing in addition to alleged sexual
violence against white women—the most remembered casus belli for
lynching—the memorial reminds us that this violence was first and
foremost a form of social control, a way to preserve race hierarchy
against the claims and actions of black Americans. Many were killed
with the approval of state authorities. Few committed any real crime.
The murderers themselves escaped punishment or accountability. Some
participants, like future senator Ben Tillman
[https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/05/21/reviews/000521.21dewlt.html?_r=1] of
South Carolina, would go on to Washington.

With brutal, unspeakable violence, white communities affirmed their
virtue, and the white South, as a whole, affirmed its power.

The terror wasn’t just for blacks accused of supposedly unacceptable
conduct in their contact with whites. In her investigation of the
lynching of three Memphis grocers—Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and
William Stewart—pioneering journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida
B. Wells concluded that their alleged offense was simply success. The
lynching had been
[https://items.ssrc.org/ida-b-wells-and-the-economics-of-racial-violence/] “an
excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property
and thus keep the race terrorized.” An April 1919 edition
[https://d.pr/i/hCek0o] of the Chicago Defender records a lynching in
Blakely, Georgia, where Pvt. William Little—a soldier returning from
the war in Europe—was accosted by whites who demanded he remove his
uniform. Several weeks later, after warnings that he had worn his Army
garb for “too long,” he was found dead, beaten by a mob.

These murders weren’t driven by a small group of virulent racists
but were embraced by most white communities in which they occurred.
They were communal acts that imparted meaning to spectators and
participants alike. What is made clear in the museum is that the
history of lynching is for white Americans as much as it is black
ones. It is a history of how the white South constituted itself
through communal violence, creating and policing the borders of its
racial identity. Lynching wasn’t just a way to enforce caste
relations between blacks and whites, it was also a tool white
Southerners used to define the meaning of their whiteness.

You can see what this looked like in the large body of lynching
photographs, some of which are presented in the museum as evidence of
lynching’s broad acceptance among white Southerners. The pictures
had a purpose: They were circulated by perpetrators as mementos,
souvenirs, and propaganda, meant to warn blacks of the danger of
stepping out of line, no matter how innocuous the offense. A 1935
photograph
[https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/75ff1d22-7471-750e-e040-e00a1806400b] from
the lynching of Rubin Stacy, a young homeless tenant farmer, shows the
perpetrators and their families in comfortable, seemingly
well-constructed clothing. The men are wearing slacks, the women and
girls are in dresses. At their center is Stacy’s lifeless body,
hanging from a tree, his hands cuffed. One of the girls is smiling. A
1930 photograph from the lynchings of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
[https://eji.org/thomas-shipp-and-abram-smith-indiana], both 19, shows
a crowd that is large, well-dressed, and visibly interested in the
grim spectacle. Another photograph—from the 1916 lynching of
17-year-old Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas—shows a crowd of
thousands
[https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/columnists/native-texan/article/Famous-photographer-documents-Waco-s-dark-day-7397781.php] watching
as his body burns and smolders.

A picture of the mob preparing to lynch Jesse Washington from a tree
in front of Waco City Hall taken by Fred Gildersleeve on May 15, 1916.
/ Fred Gildersleeve/Library of Congress
White communities celebrated these lynchings in the local press, as
documented in _100 Years of Lynchings_
[http://www.amazon.com/dp/0933121180/?tag=slatmaga-20], a collection
of contemporaneous news accounts. “Zachariah Walker, a negro
desperado, was carried on a cot from the hospital here last night and
burned to a crisp by a frenzied mob of men and boys on a fire which
they ignited about a half mile from town,” crowed
[https://d.pr/i/4WgFbP]the Montgomery Advertiser in a story dated Aug.
15, 1911. Politicians were often enthusiastic supporters of these
efforts. Commenting on a recent lynching in his state, Gov.
Cole Blease of South Carolina told crowds
[https://d.pr/i/KWnNKD] that he would rather have “resigned the
office,” and “led the mob” himself, than deter any white man
from punishing “that nigger brute.”

This was more than gruesome titillation or curiosity. The age of
lynching emerged at a time when much of the country was preoccupied
with the decline of traditional morality, represented by urbanization
and the growing autonomy of women. This larger context is outside the
scope of the museum—which turns its attention to the victims—but
it is an important part of understanding the lynching era and why it
matters for the present. In the white South, that preoccupation
blended with patriarchal norms, evangelical religion, and white
supremacy to produce a noxious brew where, as historian Amy Louise
Wood writes in _Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in
America, 1890–1940_
[http://www.amazon.com/dp/0807871974/?tag=slatmaga-20], “white
southerners … conceptualized the threat of black enfranchisement and
autonomy as … a dire moral threat to white purity, literally a
physical assault on white homes and white women.” And in this
vision, “black men came to personify the moral corruption that they
believed to be the root cause of social disorder.”

A sculpture depicting Africans captured into slavery / Jamelle Bouie

Lynchings served two purposes: They both preserved white dominance
against the prospect of black equality _and_ restored the presumed
moral status of white communities by eliminating threats to white
purity and virtue as well as white authority. These killings often
took a ritualistic cast. “Lynch mobs at times gave their victims
time to pray and, more frequently, wrought confessions from them,”
writes Wood. Likewise, lynch mobs paid close attention to torment and
suffering, “practices that publicly rehearsed narratives of human
sin and divine judgment”—well known in an age of public, deeply
held Christianity. It is not without meaning that lynching defenders
condemned victims as “demons,” “fiends,” and “brutes,” nor
is it coincidence that, in her defense of lynching, prominent
temperance activist, suffragette, and future U.S senator Rebecca
Latimer Felton thundered that if “there is not enough religion in
the pulpits to organize a crusade against sin … nor manhood enough
in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue”
then “lynch a thousand times a week if necessary.”

The central narrative of lynching—the lie of inherent black
criminality—still shapes public life.

With brutal, unspeakable violence, white men affirmed their manhood,
white communities affirmed their virtue, and the white South, as a
whole, affirmed its power. To murder with impunity, in full view of
the public, is to claim total authority. On the other side, both black
men and black women were shown their essential powerlessness in
Southern society. And the extent to which black women were
lynched—Mary Turner [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Turner], for
instance was killed with her unborn child for complaining about the
lynching of her husband—served to underscore the scant value
attached to their lives and “womanly virtue.” If the master-slave
relations of the antebellum South were shattered by the Civil War and
Reconstruction, then lynching helped recreate them, albeit on more
“democratic lines,” as all white Southerners—and not just a
select, propertied few—could claim the right to kill. Lynching
dramatized the South’s emerging caste system at the same time that
it defined its terms.

That rigid caste system may be gone, but the central narrative of
lynching—the lie of inherent black criminality—still shapes public
life. Just weeks ago
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/04/13/a-teen-missed-the-bus-to-school-when-he-knocked-on-a-door-for-directions-a-man-shot-at-him/?utm_term=.b471b99600d0],
14-year-old Brennan Walker was shot at after knocking on a door in the
predominantly white Rochester Hills, Michigan. The woman at the door
thought he was there to rob them, and her husband, who heard her
screams, ran down with his shotgun. Walker had simply stopped, on his
way to school, to ask for directions. He was lucky. In 2013,
19-year-old Renisha McBride knocked on a door in a Dearborn Heights
neighborhood, seeking help after a car crash. The homeowner, Theodore
Wafer, opened his door and fired his shotgun, killing her. Compare
both incidents to a lynching account presented at the memorial: “A
black man was lynched in Millersburg, Ohio, in 1892 for ‘standing
around’ in a white neighborhood.”

The specter of the black criminal continues to weigh on our justice
system. Stevenson is quick to note that the most reliable predictor of
a death penalty sentence is still the race of the victim, not the
perpetrator. Black killers of white victims are far more likely to
receive a death sentence than black killers of black people.

Lynching echoes in other ways. Our politics are in the grip of a
backlash defined, in large part, by deep racial entitlement on the
part of many white Americans. Indeed, racial violence—or the promise
of such—remains a potent tool for defining the boundaries of white
racial community. As a candidate for president, Donald Trump promised
state action against Hispanic immigrants and Muslim refugees. Not as
punishment but as defense—a way to keep America free of people that,
in his view, cannot assimilate. How did he describe these groups? As
“rapists,” criminals, and drug dealers—dangerous gang members
who defile and kill innocent American women. Far from repelling
voters, this language primed and activated racial fear and resentment
[https://www.voterstudygroup.org/publications/2016-elections/race-religion-immigration-2016] among
many white voters, supercharging its electoral potency. Trump wasn’t
just defining an enemy, he was speaking a language of racial
threat—of purity and morality—that has its roots in the lynching
era.Perhaps, had white Americans in particular possessed a better
understanding of the lynching era and what it entailed, they would
have viewed Trump’s message of past greatness with appropriate
skepticism. “I think about the history, and I realize we’ve never
said, ‘Never again,’ ” Stephenson said. “We didn’t say,
‘Never again’ at the end of enslavement. We didn’t do it at the
end of lynching, at the end of segregation. And because we haven’t
actually articulated the commitment, things keep happening. We keep
replicating new forms of bigotry and discrimination that get applied
to people of color and to African Americans in particular, that
ideology of white supremacy survives.”

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice forces Americans into a
difficult but necessary confrontation over the depths of our racial
divide. It’s a rebuke to the whitewashed history of “Make America
Great Again” as well as the naïve “post-racialism” of the
recent past. And it tries to push the story forward. A statue titled
“Raise Up” shows a row of men, their heads and shoulders coming
out of stone, their hands raised above their heads. You don’t need a
guide to know what they’re saying. _Hands up, don’t shoot_.
Placed after the central monuments of the memorial, it connects the
racial violence of the past to the racial violence of the present,
challenging the triumphant narratives that make today’s
America—and today’s Americans—fundamentally different than those
who lived before.

A sculpture, titled “Raise Up,” that is meant to echo the “hands
up, don’t shoot” motion of Black Lives Matter protests / Jamelle
Bouie

It’s reminiscent of journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s comparison
[https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/25/mike-brown-shooting-jim-crow-lynchings-in-common] between
lynchings and police shootings, following the unrest in Ferguson,
Missouri, in 2014. “The rate of police killings of black Americans
is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of
the 20th century,” wrote Wilkerson, placing those events on a
continuum with the violence that drove the “Great Migrations” of
the 20th century. “The haunting symmetry of a death every three or
four days links us to an uglier time that many would prefer not to
think about, but which reminds us that the devaluation of black life
is as old as the nation itself and has yet to be confronted.”

There are other potent connections between the past and the present.
The public nature of lynching echoes in the ubiquitous videos of
police assaults and police killings. Like lynching photographs, they
have sparked outrage and galvanized activists, building political will
for criminal justice reform. But they also turn trauma into endlessly
repeated spectacle, rehashing the initial injury and reminding black
people of their tenuous place within American society.

There is some danger in the directness of these comparisons. To use
lynching too much as a metaphor is to wear it down, robbing it of its
specificity and meaning. A phrase like “high-tech lynching”—or
rhetoric that compares harsh criticism to a “lynch mob”—obscures
far more than it illuminates. Still, there’s reason to keep lynching
as a metaphor and analytical tool; as the Legacy Museum shows, there
are too many parallels between that era of racial terrorism and the
current struggles against police brutality and white racial backlash
to ignore.

But what do we do with those connections? The memorial and museum
suggest one approach. Both are interactive in a sense. Individual
communities can claim one of the individual monuments that make up the
memorial. They can remove it to their town or county and erect it as a
memorial to _their_ particular victims of lynching. Over time,
visitors will be able to see who has taken a marker and who hasn’t,
who is reckoning with their history and who isn’t. Stevenson also
hopes that after experiencing the monuments and exhibits, individuals
are primed to act. He wants the country to look at racial terrorism
and say, “Never again_,_”_ _and in pursuit of that end,_ _the
Equal Justice Initiative will provide information to help visitors
register to vote or sign petitions relating to racial justice and
reform.

It’s both a powerful gesture—connecting this history to the
politics of today—and one that doesn’t quite fit the sheer
radicalism of this project. The National Memorial for Peace and
Justice isn’t just a memorial. It is an indictment of the United
States and its ongoing commitment to racial hierarchy. It argues,
explicitly, that white supremacy is fundamental to the structure of
this society. And it suggests that our only option for uprooting those
evils is a radical correction from our present course. 

Correction, May 3, 2018: This story originally misstated that Elbert
Williams was lynched in 1914. The correct date is 1940.

_Jamelle Bouie [https://slate.com/author/jamelle-bouie] is Slate’s
chief political correspondent._

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