I went through the American public school system at a time when it was highly regarded, at least in many states. In school, I learned about a number of important American historical events, including slavery and the Civil War. I also learned about American’s westward expansion and the concept of “manifest destiny.” But I was not taught about lynching (which, if it was mentioned at all, was only referenced in passing) or the massive genocide conducted against Native Americans.
Things didn’t improve much during my first year at the state university, where I read purported American history written by Samuel Eliot Morison and others of his ilk that elided many essential events and facts (I later transferred to a better school). In fact, it wasn’t until after college, when I discovered The Nation and Howard Zinn, that I began to piece together some understanding of this country’s genuine history, including long-running atrocities like lynching in America.
Late last month, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is an astounding creation, documenting the true history of the racist terror campaign behind lynching like nothing else before it. A product of the Equal Justice Initiative and its extraordinary founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson, the memorial and its adjacent Legacy Museum catalog some 4,400 lynchings in total, including hundreds which had gone undocumented until now.
The memorial’s centerpiece consists of some 800 rusted steel columns suspended over a descending walkway. Each column is etched with the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there (many of the names are listed as “unknown”). Some of the killings are described in short summaries along the walk. For example (from the New York Times): Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.
Stevenson took his inspiration in part from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, believing that a single, national memorial was the most effective way to depict the scale of the horror. Germany and South Africa have done a far better job than the United States of confronting their horrific pasts, even if elements of those ugly legacies seem to be on the rise again in both countries. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a breakthrough first step for the U. S. in confronting the evils of its past—and its present too, of course.
But this particular evil had a distinctly local face as well. Whole families would make a festive outing of a lynching, the kids running around with horrific grins on their grimy little faces, the adults smiling malevolently. This was evil with a lasting legacy, still very much with us today.
Even so, the memorial offers some reasons for optimism. The site also houses duplicates of every one of the steel columns, which are intended to travel to the counties where the lynchings were carried out. People in those counties can request “their” column, but to do so they must demonstrate that they have made efforts in their communities to “address racial and economic injustice.”
Dozens of these requests have already been made.