New National Memorial Marks Black Victims of White Supremacist Terror and Violence—from Slavery to Jim Crow Lynching to Mass Incarceration Today

April 30, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |


The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the accompanying Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration opened in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 26. Located on what used to be a pen that held captive Black people before they were sold at slave auctions, the memorial and museum are important contributions to helping people in the U.S. face up to the actual history of this country, including slavery and lynchings, and the effects of this white supremacist terror and violence down to today.

At the center of the memorial are more than 800 columns made of weathered steel, hanging from the roof—one for each county where lynchings took place—inscribed with the names of those lynched, or with “anonymous” where the identity of the lynching victim is not known. A New York Times reviewer described how “The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings. The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk: Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for walking behind the wife of his white employer’; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.”

All through the South today, there are monuments and statues to the Confederacy and its generals—those who fought for slavery, for the right of whites to own Black people as property. These are monuments celebrating hundreds of years of untold horror brought down on millions of enslaved people. As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the nonprofit organization behind the new memorial and museum, points out, if you go to South Africa, you can’t help but hear about the decades of apartheid. If you go to Berlin, there are memorials to mark the places where Jewish families were forcibly taken from to be sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust. “[B]ut in America, we don’t talk about slavery, we don’t talk about lynching, we don’t talk about segregation.” The memorial and museum are intended to change that—to make people say, “Never again.”

As viscerally spoken to by Bob Avakian (BA) in his talk Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, and What It’s All About (in the section on “They’re selling postcards of the hanging”), these lynchings were violent, depraved actions and were often public spectacles advertised ahead of time to draw crowds—literally a family pastime in which all too many white people took part, for more than 100 years. The lynchings were tolerated and often encouraged, if not assisted, by federal, state, and local officials and law enforcement. Most of the time, no one was arrested for these murders, let alone convicted and jailed in the rare cases where the perpetrators were arrested—like the white men who lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, who were acquitted by an all-white jury and then publicly boasted about what they had done.

As BA also points out in another section of his Revolution talk (“Emmett Till and Jim Crow: Black people lived under a death sentence”), all Black people—from the very young to the elderly—were made to live in terror. Every Black person living in the rural South, where the majority of Black people lived during this time, was under a death sentence, which might or might not be carried out but always hung over their heads. This had everything to do with the overall outrages to which Black people were subjected. As BA notes, “This experience of lynching and its effect on the masses of Black people can in a real sense be taken as representing and concentrating the experience of Black people as a whole, long after literal slavery with all its horrors had been ended in the 1860s.”

Bryan Stevenson and a small group of lawyers at EJI spent many years researching through archives and libraries to document lynchings across the South. They catalogued nearly 4,400 in total—many acknowledged for the first time. The EJI notes, “The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”

Visitors to the memorial are first confronted by a sculpture on slavery by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. After the columns memorializing the lynching victims, as the EJI site described, “The memorial experience continues through the civil rights era made visible with a sculpture by Dana King dedicated to the women who sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Finally, the memorial journey ends with contemporary issues of police violence and racially biased criminal justice expressed in a final work created by Hank Willis Thomas.”

The EJI describes the Legacy Museum as the “physical manifestation” of decades of research on “the history of racial injustice” in the U.S. “The Legacy Museum employs unique technology to dramatize the enslavement of African Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in America. Relying on rarely seen first-person accounts of the domestic slave trade, EJI’s critically acclaimed research materials, videography, exhibits on lynching and recently composed content on segregation, this ... museum will explore the history of racial inequality and its relationship to a range of contemporary issues from mass incarceration to police violence.”

The opening of the memorial and museum in Montgomery is very urgent and relevant in the situation we face today. The horror depicted so vividly there IS the history of this country. This terror and violence served to keep in place a whole system, which could not have existed without first slavery and then near-slavery and outright segregation centered in the South while a great majority of Black people lived there. White supremacy is built into the foundation of the USA—something that this system and those who rule it could not do without. And this has continued down to the present. As BA says, “There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth.” (BAsics 1:1) Segregation, discrimination and racism exist in housing, jobs, schools, healthcare, culture—in every part of society. And this continues to be backed up with brutality and violence—by the uniformed lynch mobs of the “officers of the law” who disproportionately target Black and other people of color for murder and brutality, and through mass incarceration of oppressed people.

More information, photos and videos about the memorial and museum are at the EJI website.


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