A poignant memorial to the 4,400 black people lynched by whites up until 1950 is forcing America to confront its racist past, says Bette Browne.
Americans are confronting the savage atrocities of their past at the first national memorial dedicated to the thousands of black men, women, and children lynched during a century of racial terror.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, together with a museum to slavery and its legacy, is in Montgomery, Alabama, one of 12 southern states transformed into a landscape of torture between 1877 and 1950, when white Americans lynched 4,400 black Americans.
But those victims are no longer merely numbers. Now, they have names. They are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, even whole families.
Civil rights activist, Jesse Jackson, said the memorial would end America’s silence on lynching.
“Whites wouldn’t talk about it, because of shame. Blacks wouldn’t talk about it, because of fear,” he said.
Congressman John Lewis, who marched with the late Martin Luther King, for civil rights, in the 1960s, said: “It must never, ever happen again in America, or any place in the world.”
The memorial and museum, a decade in the making and underpinned by years of research, was opened recently by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) civil rights organisation.
“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” EJI director and Harvard University-trained lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, said.
The EJI’s chilling report of 2015, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, records that people were hanged for perceived social transgressions, like walking behind a white woman.
Others were killed for demanding payment for work, for reporting a crime, or for organising sharecroppers.
Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama, in 1940, for referring to a white policeman by his name, without the title of “mister”.
In 1918, Private Charles Lewis was lynched in Hickman, Kentucky, for refusing to empty his pockets, while wearing his US army uniform.
Richard Wilkerson was lynched in Manchester, Tennessee, in 1934, for allegedly slapping a white man who had assaulted a black woman at an African-American dance.
In 1916, Jeff Brown was lynched in Cedarbluff, Mississippi, for accidentally bumping into a white girl, as he ran to catch a train.
In 1917, Sam Gates was lynched for “annoying white girls” in England, Arkansas.
In Okemah, Oklahoma, a black woman named Laura Nelson, and her teenage son, LW, were kidnapped from jail, before they could stand trial on murder charges, in May, 1911. The mob hanged Ms Nelson and her son from a bridge over the Canadian River.
Elizabeth Lawrence, a teacher, was lynched on July 5, 1933, in Birmingham, Alabama, because she told a group of white children to stop throwing stones at her.
On June 18, 1934, a mob lynched a 16-year-old black boy in Pine Level, Alabama, after a white man reported that he had been attacked by a black man.
The mob could not find the alleged attacker, so they seized Otis Parham. He told them he knew nothing about the incident. He was beaten and then shot dead.
The lynching memorial, designed by Irish-American, Michael Murphy, and his non-profit architectural firm, MASS Design Group, is made up of 800, 6ft-long steel columns, one for each county in the United States where a lynching took place.
The names of the dead are engraved on the columns, which are suspended from above, evoking the horror of the lynchings.
Nearby is a field of identical columns, standing like headstones, ready to be claimed by local communities and placed at the locations of the lynchings — near bridges and trees, in fields and laneways, in parks and town squares, in front of homes and businesses, breaking the silence, proclaiming the secrets, bearing witness to barbarity.
The image of a white mob murdering a black man, by hanging him from a tree, might explain the physical act of lynching, but it tells us little about the deeper reasons behind such horrific killings.
Although rape allegations were often cited as a reason for such lynchings, statistics show that only about one fourth of them, from 1880 to 1930, were prompted by such an accusation.
Most victims were political activists, union organisers, or black men and women who violated white expectations of black deference. Lynchings of sharecroppers, ministers, and community leaders who resisted mistreatment were most common between 1915 and 1940.
Though most victims were black men, women and children were also lynched.
Lynchings were about exercising power over black people, the EJI emphasises. They were acts of terror meant to spread fear, with the aim of maintaining white supremacy in the economic, social and political spheres, and were facilitated by many of those in power.
In 1863, slaves were granted freedom via the president, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration and, four years later, the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 granted voting rights to African-American men.
But a white backlash was brewing, as the South set about establishing a new control system for African-Americans. Lynching, in effect, replaced enslavement.
While lynching was not confined to black people, it was far more horrific for them than it was for white victims.
White people, along with Native-Americans, Mexicans, and Asian-Americans, were lynched, especially in the frontier areas of the Wild West, often by cattle barons who took the law into their own hands, hanging those perceived to be cattle and horse thieves.
An individual subjected to a “frontier lynching” typically was accused of murder or robbery, given some form of trial, and hanged without any additional torture. But Southern lynchings were commonly extra-judicial. In addition, lynchings of African-Americans often included burning, mutilation, and decapitation.
Many such lynchings became public spectacles, sometimes attended by thousands of people, including elected officials and leading citizens.
The atrocities were often staged like carnival events. Vendors sold food and families held festive picnics. Postcards were also produced for sale to the crowd, with photographs of the lynching and corpse.
Onlookers sometimes participated in the victims’ prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment and burning, and then collected body parts as souvenirs.
“Only by remembering, can healing begin. Truth comes first and then reconciliation,” Mr Stevenson says, citing the processes undertaken after the Holocaust, in Germany, and apartheid, in South Africa.
The EJI hopes community groups will install memorial markers on the sites where many of these acts of savagery happened. But not every community wants to remember its history.
While many of the communities where lynchings took place have erected markers and monuments, memorialising figures and events from the Southern Confederacy that fought to maintain slavery, few monuments or memorials address the legacy of lynching.
The six-acre park where the lynching memorial is situated also houses the EJI’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which explores slavery, lynching, codified segregation, and mass incarceration in America.
The 11,000sq ft museum has been built on the site of a former warehouse, where enslaved black people were imprisoned, before being sold, along with cows and cattle, at one of the largest slave markets in America.
Among the items arranged in rows at the museum are jars of soil from lynching sites. The jars bear the names of those who were killed.
The museum and memorial promote truth and reconciliation around race in America and confront its legacy of slavery, lynching, and segregation, in the hope of furthering racial equality.
“The lynching era left thousands dead. It significantly marginalised black people in the country’s political, economic, and social systems and it fuelled a massive migration of black refugees out of the South.
“In addition, lynching and other forms of racial terrorism inflicted deep traumatic and psychological wounds on survivors, witnesses, family members, and the entire African-American community,” says Mr Stevenson.
And, for more than 80 years, as Southern whites used lynching to enforce a post-slavery system of racial dominance, white officials in the rest of the country, and in the US Congress, did little to stop it. Indeed, some lynchings were also carried out in northern states.
In April 1906, two black men, named Horace Duncan and Fred Coker, were accused of rape in Springfield, Missouri. Though both men had alibis, confirmed by their employer, a mob refused to wait for a trial.
Instead, they seized both men from jail, hanged them from Gottfried Tower, near the town square, and burned and shot their corpses, while 5,000 white men, women, and children watched.
Seven presidents, between 1890 and 1952, petitioned Congress to pass a federal anti-lynching law and nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced. But Southern white congressional members blocked them, calling the efforts federal interference in local affairs. Some states passed their own anti-lynching laws, but refused to enforce them.
People could have been prosecuted for murder, of course, but in rare cases where there might have been charges after a lynching, it was for a lesser crime, like rioting, for which they would receive probation or a short period in jail.
The first successful federal prosecution of a lyncher for a civil rights violation was in 1946. At a meeting with the president, Harry Truman, the same year, the actor and singer, Paul Robeson, urged him to take action against lynching.
Five years later, on December 17, 1951, Robeson was among a group that presented a petition to the United Nations, charging that the US government was guilty of genocide for failing to act against lynchings.
On June 13, 2005, the US Senate formally apologised for its failure to enact a federal anti-lynching law. Before the historic vote, Senator Mary Landrieu, from the Southern state of Louisiana, declared: “There may be no other injustice in America for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility.”
Today, America honours the 1960s civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, with an annual public holiday.
But civil rights leaders say that when such honours are not accompanied by meaningful engagement with the history of systematic violence against black Americans for decades after slavery, they risk painting an incomplete and distorted picture.
Erecting monuments and memorials to commemorate lynching “can begin to correct our distorted national narrative about this period of racial terror in American history,” Mr Stevenson says.
“Truth and reconciliation is not pretty,” he says. “It’s not easy, it’s not fun, it’s not comfortable. Because truth and reconciliation is sequential. You’ve got to tell the truth, before you can get to reconciliation, and sometimes telling the truth is hard.
“Our goal isn’t to be divisive. Our goal is just to get people to confront the truth of our past with some more courage.
The African-American writer, Maya Angelou, puts it this way in her poem, On the Pulse of Morning: “History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again.”
Ghoulish public spectacle
At public spectacle lynchings, large crowds of white people, often in their thousands, witnessed these widely advertised killings, which involved torture, mutilation, dismemberment or burning of the victim. Body parts were collected as souvenirs.
In Without Sanctuary (2000), a book of lynching postcards collected by James Allen, historian, Leon F Litwack, wrote:
“The photographs stretch our credulity, even numb our minds and senses to the full extent of the horror, but they must be examined, if we are to understand how normal men and women could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, even reinterpret them, so they would not see themselves or be perceived as less than civilised.
“The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings.
“For the men and women who composed these mobs, as for those who remained silent and indifferent, or who provided scholarly or scientific explanations, this was the highest idealism in the service of their race.
“They were family men and women, good churchgoing folk, who came to believe that keeping black people in their place was nothing less than pest control.”
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