The newly opened memorial to lynching, the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery Alabama is a project of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) that also memorializes slavery, segregation and mass incarceration. While slavery and segregation are a part of the US’s criminal past (of which many are well aware), lynching is a particularly insidious racial crime that the US wants to forget. But in remembering and memorializing this racial terror, the victims, rather than their tormentors get the last word.
Their murderers sought to wipe them and their memories from the face of the earth, while terrorizing and traumatizing those left behind, as they burned, castrated, mutilated and sometimes dismembered corpses, and on occasion dragged what was left through the streets of the Black community.
But thanks to those who tirelessly worked to keep their memories alive, starting with Ida B Wells and now Bryan Stephenson, they have outlived their murderers. Their murderers and their crowd of accomplices are just sad, blank, pitiful faces on old postcards.
Rather than tucking its tail and disappearing from the face of the earth, the people they sought to destroy still rose.
Equal Justice Initiative called the savagery that was lynching, “celebratory acts of racial control and domination.”
The presence of smiling crowds suggests that lynching was deeply ingrained and widespread,. Children are present because the elders meant to ingrain this hatred, this sickness, this sense of empowerment, this entitlement over Black bodies, generationally.
The resulting residue from this terror was Whites learned to never, ever, empathize with Black people. The aim was to teach the children total disrespect of the Black being, to create a loathing of everything Black, even the dead body was viewed as offensive.
As one sociologists put it, “Lynching produced the solidarity that helped bolster racial hierarchy.” Other sociologists noted that it was a festival of violence because of the carnival like atmosphere that surrounded lynching.
No doubt the terror in some ways had its desired results, to this day some Black folks fear becoming successful, because more often than not it was successful and enterprising and proud Black people who were lynched.
Some whites are nervous about this history because of what it might say about them. No doubt, “The Terror” was orchestrated by a people who were clearly deeply disturbed.
Moreover, “The Terror “suggests that the civilization the US claims to be, is all a carefully orchestrated tale, because deep in its subconscious, lies something quite sinister. We see the remnants of this behavior in the police’ attitude toward Black people. We see in it the callous and un-empathetic, attempt by some to divert from the problem of police violence in the Black community by pointing out the violence in Black communities, as if Black folks wouldn’t put an end to ghetto violence, if they could.
History records no sense of shame on the part of the lynchers. Lynching appeared to be a righteous crusade, the work of God indirectly (and sometime directly) sanctioned by the church. Historians have noted that many parishioners rushed from church services to take observe or participate in lynchings.
Even the local press was complicit, as it reported the lynchings as a normal and acceptable part of the social fabric.
We kid ourselves if we fail to acknowledge that the children of those children, still walk among us. The ideological basis for those crimes is still popular in some circles. The social/political/economic system that encouraged and enabled that behavior is still in charge. In fact the government NEVER sought to outlaw such acts, implying it approved of them.
Federal, state and local law and law enforcement, (which the Christianized US has so much respect for) never intervened, in fact more often than not, it helped facilitate “The Terror.” Yet we are still surprised and mystified by the cold blooded killing of Black folks, by the police and the double standards of the US justice system.
Lynching puts the phrase “law and order” in proper perspective. It means keeping Black folks and the “other” in line. It is why some White folks are quick to say when in disagreements with Blacks,’ I am going to call the authorities.’ What they are saying is,’ I am going to have you put in your place, Ni- -er.’
And ultimately that was the primary motivation for “The Terror.” The White folks and the system did not want to get rid of Black folks, they wanted to make sure they knew to stay in their place; beneath Whites.
Many claim society has moved on and dredging up old memories will just make folks feel bad, or encourage retribution by the survivors. But we have not moved on and we cannot move forward without confronting and acknowledging the past. Failure to do so explains why the attitudes that would lead to such horrific behavior still exist today in the US. The existence of a more open and integrated society, inter racial marriage and relationships are not enough to overcome a system that continues to encourage a dim view of Blacks and others.
Consequently, the only way for this society to atone for this crime is to openly admit it, memorialize it, denounce it and the motivation for it, and compensate the victims families for their loss.
Furthermore, redemption can only be attained by working to overturn the social/political/economic system that fueled the hyper White Supremacy that made the barbarous terror necessary.
Justice then peace