Opinion | Breaking the Silence on American Lynchings

Opinion | Breaking the Silence on American Lynchings

The carnivals of death where African-American men, women and children were hanged, burned and dismembered as cheering crowds of whites looked on were the cornerstone of white supremacist rule in the Jim Crow-era South. These bloody spectacles terrified black communities into submission and showed whites that there would be no price to pay for murdering black people who asserted the right to vote, competed with whites in business — or so much as brushed against a white person on the sidewalk.

The lynching belt states looked away from this history, even as they developed now-popular tourism programs that attract visitors to churches, schools, courthouses and other landmarks associated with the civil rights movement. The long-neglected chapter of this story becomes breathtakingly visible on Thursday in Montgomery, Ala., where the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative will inaugurate two institutions focused on racial-terror lynching as the practice manifested itself between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.

The Legacy Museum, which is not far from the place where enslaved African-Americans entered Alabama’s capital city in chains, frankly explores how lynch mobs sought to preserve slavery and how the contempt for black life exemplified by extralegal hangings took new forms, like the death penalty and mass incarceration.

The National Memorial For Peace and Justice — a sprawling six-acre site overlooking Montgomery — represents America’s first major effort to confront the vast scope of the racial-terror lynchings that ravaged the African-American community in the South. The memorial bears the names of more than 4,400 African-Americans who were victims of terror killings during this period — inscribed on more than 800 steel pillars that also bear the names of the counties where the lynchings occurred. A duplicate set of pillars has been made available to counties that wish to own up to their histories by commemorating the lynching dead within their borders.

Among the dead remembered at the memorial is Frazier Baker, a family man and teacher who was targeted for lynching when the McKinley administration named him postmaster of the majority-white community of Lake City, S.C., in 1897. Whites who were angered by the elevation of a black person petitioned the government for his removal, tried to assassinate him and eventually burned the Lake City post office to the ground.

Refusing to give up the job, Baker moved the post office into his home. During the early-morning hours of Feb. 22, 1898, a mob set fire to the Baker home and fired a hail of bullets as the family tried to flee. Baker and his infant daughter, Julia, were killed. His wife was wounded and would no doubt have died had neighbors not pulled her away from the flames. The case conformed to an established pattern when a jury failed to convict those charged with the crime.

The memorial represents the culmination of an effort that began nearly a decade ago, when the institute, led by the civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, began combing the historical record in an effort to gauge the full scope of the racial-terror killings that took place between 1877 and 1950. Strikingly, the institute turned up 800 more lynchings than had been reported in the 12 Southern states it examined. The researchers also documented 300 lynchings in other states during this time period.

Different groups of African-Americans were targeted for what mobs referred to as “lynching bees” and “Negro barbecues” during different periods. Between 1915 and 1940, those selected for killing commonly included sharecroppers, ministers and community leaders who resisted mistreatment or agitated for equal rights.

The institute also learned that people who had attended lynchings as children were still alive. After the first report appeared in 2015, a Florida man called to report that his grandfather had taken him to a lynching when he was 6 years old. Another caller reported that two uncles had been among the 500 people who attended the lynching of Commodore Jones, hanged in 1911 in Farmersville, Tex., on the charge of insulting a white person.

Despite countless horrors like these, Southerners in the United States Senate repeatedly prevented Congress from declaring lynching a federal crime. In 2005, the Senate finally apologized to the descendants of victims for failing to act while the reign of racial terror swept the South.

The new museum and memorial in Montgomery are necessary first stops for a civil rights tour of the South. They vividly illustrate the terrorism that enforced the Jim Crow regime into the mid-20th century. Beyond that, they show that the devaluation of black life upon which slavery relied did not just evaporate, but haunts the country still.

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