The markers are about the size of a man. The color of bricks made from Alabama’s red clay, they hang from the roof, one for every county in America where a person was lynched.
Appearing first at eye level, the markers read like headstones. But as the floor descends, they hang ever more ominously overhead, until visitors are forced to crane their necks — like the spectators who once gawked at the mutilated bodies of the black men and women who had been hung.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first major memorial to the victims of lynching during the era of Jim Crow, opened this week in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s intended to help our country confront the racial atrocities of the past so that we can begin the path toward reconciliation.
The memorial is the culmination of years of research by our friends at the Equal Justice Initiative, (EJI) a legal aid organization that fights for racial justice. Its researchers pored through countless archives to document the extent of a racist terror campaign that lasted for some 70 years and, for a period of three decades, averaged two or three lynchings a week.
EJI founder Bryan Stevenson and his staff identified 4,400 victims of lynching, and paid tribute in the memorial to the thousands more whose names will never be known.
“There was a very deliberate effort to cover the truth about lynching,” said NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill from the stage this week at EJI’s two-day Peace and Justice Summit. Ifill continued:
There was a compact within the white community not to talk about it. In black communities, you didn’t talk about it because of fear. The black community had to fight to keep the story alive, but we didn’t have video. You can’t unsee Walter Scott running, getting shot in the back. You can’t unsee Eric Garner getting choked to death. Gaslighting that we didn’t see what we saw undermined the black community, but now, we can see.
Near the memorial, EJI’s companion Legacy Museum tells more of the story. Situated along Montgomery’s historic riverfront, it sits just a block from what once was one of the largest slave markets in the country and on the site of a warehouse where slaves were imprisoned as they were bought and sold. The museum connects the past of white supremacy, enslavement and lynching to the racial injustice and police brutality we still see today.
For the writer and scholar Jelani Cobb, the present is intimately related to that past:
For the work we do in the present, it seems possible to see the fingerprints of those lynchings with Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland losing their lives at the hands of the police in a way they shouldn’t. Lynching and mob violence, the roots of it go deeper than the roots of the country itself. Slavery’s roots outsource violence to the community, to reinforce the place of black people in this country. The implications of that steady drip of terrorism over those years, the nadir after slavery, the institution of Jim Crow, sharecropping, the revocation of the right to vote, they produced a new form of slavery. But I also think of these as Ida B. Wells years, years when W.E.B. DuBois produced some of his best work, years when black fraternities and sororities were launching their vision of social justice. That’s why it’s important to understand EJI in that — the nadir — the point when our greatest heroes and challengers have done their most important work.
We’re incredibly proud of our neighbors at EJI for their work in raising the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on a six-acre site overlooking the Alabama Capitol.
As Michelle Alexander said at the summit this week, “What’s happening is the birth of a new nation, a time in our history when Confederate monuments are going down and memorials like this are going up.”
Thanks to the EJI staff’s dogged pursuit of the truth, we’re able to honor here the victims of lynching in the city we share with them:
Ike Cook 08.10.1890
Oliver Jackson 03.29.1894
Robert Williams 02.15.1896
John Dell 10.07.1910
Harry Russell 08.18.1915
Kit Jackson 08.18.1915
Miles Phifer 09.29.1919
Robert Croskey 09.29.1919
John Temple 09.30.1919
Wilbur Smith 03.11.1920
Grant Cole 12.16.1925
Otis Parham 06.17.1934
P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:
- When calling the police is a privilege by Adam Harris for The Atlantic
- The renegade sheriffs by Ashley Powers for The New Yorker
- Is it a coincidence that Trump uses the language of white supremacy? by Dana Milbank for The Washington Post
- ‘I want to serve’: Air Force applicant takes on President Trump’s transgender ban by Martha Bebinger for NPR
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