The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, created by the Equal Justice Initiative, recently opened in Montgomery, Alabama. It sits at the bottom of a gently sloping grassy hill. It is stunning in its starkness, an open-air collection of metal columns suspended from a long shed-like roof, each a rectangle six feet in height with a patina of rust. There are some 800, etched with 4,400 names of black men and women who were hanged then shot, beaten and burned simply because of the color of their skin.
Collectively, these pillars represent such killings perpetrated through the South and beyond, from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to 1950, a period known as Jim Crow and characterized by endemic segregation fraudulently represented as separate but equal. They represent the final, overt remnant of a holocaust that began more than a century before with the institution of slavery and even now ripples across America, fraying the fabric of our society. It is a legacy that haunts us still.
To attempt to understand this part of our nation’s history is to stare into an abyss of extreme cruelty that remains, ultimately, inexplicable.
As part of the National Memorial there are annotated photographs of men and women hanged, their hands bound, encased in a chilling stillness, their eyes gray cataracts, their heads canted at an odd angle. Below, looking up at the body, are white people gathered at the lynching as if they were at a carnival, children clinging to adults, all there to bear witness. Study their faces, these men and women, and look for any sign of revulsion, any expression of remorse and find instead a detached curiosity, perhaps, but not a hint of the profound horror of the moment.
Instead, there is a remarkable absence of compassion for that person hanging by a rope, a human being different only in the color of his or her skin.
But then it was that ability to completely dehumanize a race of people, to view them as merely chattel that was the essence of more than a century of slavery.
In an attempt to understand the magnitude of the killings, consider the following catalogue of names that appeared in a recent New York Time article: “Park Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying the photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gady, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for walking behind the wife of his employer; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching was hung upside down by a rampaging mob, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.” These abhorrent acts were not committed in isolation by two or three demented perpetrators consumed by racist rage; rather, these men and women were hanged and mutilated with impunity in front of crowds of white people, seemingly oblivious to their awfulness, to the point of requiring a suspension of disbelief. It happened on an unimaginable scale.
And there is this: When we think about a lynching it is usually of a black man and not of a woman. But according to a sidebar in the Times by Crystal N. Feimster, lifted from her research, she wrote that Mary Turner was not an exception. Between 1880 and 1930, lynch mobs murdered 130 black women. Feimster refrences an editorial that appeared in the Gate City Press, a black newspaper in Kansas, Missouri, which describes how Eliza Woods “was taken from the county jail, stripped naked, hung in a courthouse yard and her body riddled with bullets and left exposed to view.” Eliza Woods’ name is stenciled on one of the hanging columns.
I realize that the reaction to this tragic and dark period in our nation’s history might be to turn away, insisting that that was then and this is now. But there is also the need to create memorials that reflect on the past, the rationale for such brick-and-mortar collections of artifacts and testimonials is that we can thereby know our history. But it can also be argued that our past must be constantly exhumed in order to fully understand the present.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.