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Not letting America forget lynching

Published St. Louis American, 09/01/2016

Architectural rendition of National Lynching Museum
Architectural rendition of National Lynching Museum

“The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed.”

So said Bryan Stevenson last year when “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” was released. Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Last year, the group released a powerful investigation of lynching in this country and accounted for 800 more black bodies than originally documented during the savage period studied for the report.

I first met Stevenson when our paths crossed as abolitionists of the U.S. death penalty. He is a brilliant attorney who has been unrelenting in his quest to end executions and mass incarceration. He is author of the New York Times Bestseller “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which chronicles the cases of the poor souls he has defended over the years—emphasis on “poor.”

EJI recently made a big announcement and, not surprising, it did not receive much fanfare.

EJI is building a memorial to the more than 4,000 victims of lynching in this country. (I feel there are many more victims that may never be accounted for.) Every detail of this project has been carefully thought out.

The $20 million memorial will be constructed near a lynching site in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial will sit on the highest spot in the first capital of the Confederacy where a public housing complex once stood.

One part of the memorial will be a huge gallery of 801 suspended six-foot columns. Why 801? This number represents the number of counties where a lynching took place. The columns will be etched with the name of the person or people lynched. The museum will house documents and artifacts related to lynching.

The project has been interactive from the start when teams of volunteers collected dirt from the 363 lynching sites that EJI has documented in Alabama. The soil will become a symbolic part of the memorial grounds. There will also be duplicate columns created so that counties can claim their column and re-locate it where the respective lynching occurred. Talk about a conversation piece in your county!

Stevenson has put lynching in the historical context of black trauma from enslavement to now. The death penalty is an outgrowth of lynching and mass incarceration is a continuation of chain-gangs and debtors prisons. When American can’t make monies off of black bodies, the disposition of those bodies is usually neither humane nor moral.

This is precisely why a courageous, black man has made his life’s work connecting poverty with state violence. Stevenson has taken his commitment to confronting this nation’s past and present racism to a new level, one in which a genuine truth and reconciliation process can lead to a deepening of humanity in a land where the debt for mass destruction of peoples on a spiritual, cultural and physical level is still being tabulated.

My only question: Who wants to go with me to Montgomery next year when the memorial opens?


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