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Lynching memorial aims to help U.S. acknowledge a history of terror

December 19, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Lynchings -- unlawful executions used to terrorise and subdue black communities into passivity -- are perhaps one of the least discussed legacies of slavery and the Jim Crow South. A new memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, will commemorate victims of these acts of terror. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: Of the stains left on our national heritage by the country’s history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, perhaps the least discussed is the practice of racial lynchings, executions of African-Americans done outside the judicial system and often intended to subdue black communities into passivity.

Hari Sreenivasan looks at a plan to help bring that conversation to the fore.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The plan is to commemorate victims of racially motivated lynchings with a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

The design calls for some 800 columns, which, upon closer viewing, reveal themselves to be suspended from above in a way that mimics a hanging. Each will bear the names of lynching victims, over 4,000 in all, as well as the date and location of their deaths.

A companion courtyard will hold duplicate columns which will be moved to the county of the lynchings each commemorates, once that local community accepts it.

A recent $10 million donation from sibling philanthropists Pat and Jon Stryker brings the project closer to its planned 2018 opening.

For more on all this, we turn to Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which created the concept and is overseeing its completion.

Bryan, thanks for being with us.

First, why do we need a memorial like this?

BRYAN STEVENSON, Equal Justice Initiative: Well, I think we’re still haunted by our history of racial inequality.

We are really burdened by this legacy. And I don’t think we have acknowledged it adequately. We terrorized African-Americans at the end of the 19th century and through half of the 20th century. The demographic geography of this country was shaped by this era of racial terror and lynching.

The black people who went to Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit went there as refugees and exiles from terror. And we haven’t owned up to it. And I think we need to. It took us 15 years to build a 9/11 memorial here in New York.

And I think that’s important. I think it’s critically necessary that we remember what happened on that day. But it’s equally important that we acknowledge this history of terror that I think still undermines our ability to be free, to be just with one another, to kind of shake the burden of racial inequality that still undermines us in many areas.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This is part of a longer project that you have been working on. You documented, I think, 8,000 lynchings over almost a 75-year period. You even grabbed jars of soil from each of these sites. Why?

BRYAN STEVENSON: The American South is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy.

And there are communities where the devastation of slavery, where the devastation of the genocide of Native people has not been acknowledged, has not been recognized. Lynchings provide an opportunity for us to go to very specific places. Many of these acts of terror took place on courthouse lawns, in front of schools, in front of churches, in front of places that still exist today.

So, we have been asking people in the community to engage in acts of truth-telling and acts of recovery, reconciliation, reparation. I think we need that in this country.

In South Africa, you have seen that. In Rwanda, you have seen that. In Germany, you have seen that. I think they are healthier communities because they acknowledge their histories of mass atrocity and violence. I think we’re less healthy because we haven’t talked about the genocide of Native people, we haven’t talked about slavery, we haven’t talked about lynching.

And I think, to get there, we’re going to have to do these tasks. We’re going to have to take these steps. And the community involvement, the soil collections are part of that process.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The countries you mentioned, they didn’t get there very quickly. There was resistance.

Is there resistance, especially in the South in the United States, when you bring up the idea of this memorial?

BRYAN STEVENSON: I think there is certainly a reluctance.

We have denied this history for a long time. I think we have become such a punitive society. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about slavery, are afraid to talk about lynching and segregation because they fear they will be punished.

We don’t have an interest in punishing America for this history, but we don’t believe we can be free until we acknowledge this history. Issues of police violence, issues of discrimination, issues of lack of diversity are rooted in an absence of truth-telling about our history.

And so we have to just persuade people that there is something powerful and positive and beautiful that can come when we acknowledge these histories, however painful, and make our ways forward.

Germany is a nation that we trust more today because they don’t have these — they don’t have statutes to Adolf Hitler. They don’t celebrate the Nazis. Rwanda is a healthier place because they have acknowledged that legacy. So is South America.

I think America has to replicate that if we’re going to really be free.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I tried to give a group description of what it looks like or what it will look like, but what are you hoping that people take away if they walk through and visit the space?

BRYAN STEVENSON: I hope people will begin to think differently about who we are and what our past is.

You know, this donation comes from Jon and Pat Stryker, who are honoring their father, who stood for civil rights, who understood the importance of civil rights. And I think we have to create spaces.

The Holocaust memorials are very powerful places. You walk through them, you understand things, you come out and you say never again.

And I think we need to create spaces in America where we begin to confront this history of racial inequality and we walk out and we say never again. We want them to be sober places. We want them to be informational places, but we also want them to be places where there’s beauty, where there’s hope, where there’s the chance for transformation.

And I think we can do that. But we can’t do it without spending more time creating the kind of cultural infrastructure that I hope this memorial will contribute to.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there a through-line or a legacy of lynching in the criminal justice system today?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Oh, absolutely.

I mean, you know, at the end of the Civil War, we didn’t really deal with the great evil of American slavery. The great evil of American slavery was an involuntary servitude of forced labor.

I believe the great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to legitimate it. And because we didn’t address that in the 13th Amendment, I don’t think slavery ended. I think it just evolved.

And what we did in this country is, we began to criminalize black people. In the late 19th century, convict leasing was a new kind of slavery, where we put black people in jails and prisons, and then leased them to do the same work they would have done as enslaved people.

And that narrative of criminality was very much behind lynching, even though black people were being lynched for things like not using the colored entrance, for asking for better wages, for scolding white children. Elizabeth Lawrence was lynched in Birmingham, Alabama, because she told white kids to stop throwing stones at her.

And even though these acts were not crimes, they challenged this racial hierarchy. They challenged this narrative of racial difference.

And so we used the apparatus of punishment, the narrative of punishment to carry out these lynchings. And when lynchings were shut down because of federal pressure, they moved indoors.

And we had a criminal justice system and still have a criminal justice system that operates where too often there are presumptions of dangerousness and guilt that get assigned to black and brown people.

The wrongful convictions, the overincarceration of people of color, these disparities in sentencing are rooted in this history of criminalizing and demonizing people of color that is made most dramatic in this era of lynching.

And I think, if we understand it, we will do better at overcoming it. But we have to understand it first. And that’s why these projects on slavery and lynching, for me, are so critical.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, thanks for joining us.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Thank you.

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