There was a time in the U.S. when white people would gather in public squares in the Deep South to witness Black men, women or children hanged, burned or amputated, sometimes all of the above. This form of domestic terrorism is a painful part of American history that Bryan Stevenson said needs to be remembered in order to heal the racial divide in this country.
“We can achieve more in America when we commit to truth-telling about our past,” he said in a statement.
Stevenson, a criminal defense attorney, who played a role in successfully overturning the wrongful convictions of more than 100 people on death row, is founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
EJI spearheaded the creation of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. It is the nation’s first comprehensive memorial dedicated to the more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings of Blacks in a 70-year period following the Civil War, when Black people were supposed to get the right to vote.
“Lynching was especially effective because it would allow the whole community to know that we did this to this person,” Stevenson told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that aired Sunday on “60 Minutes.”
“It was intended to send a message that if you try to vote if you do anything that complicates white supremacy and white dominance of political power, we will kill you.”
Racial terror lynchings are defined as “acts of violence that were done with complete impunity, where there was no risk of prosecution.” Lynching was not only committed in the middle of the night by members of the Ku Klux Klan, but was also done publicly. They were witnessed and celebrated by thousands of people.
In the “60 Minutes” segment, Winfrey read from a newspaper about the lynching of a Black teenager named Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas.
“The news article headline read, ‘Burn Young Negro in Public Square as 15,000 Look On,'” Winfrey said.
The National Memorial to Peace and Justice was paid for through hundreds of private donations. The memorial structure on the center of the site is constructed of over 800 steel monuments that hang from the ceiling, one for each county in the U.S. where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.
“We wanted people to have a sense of just the scale of what this violence, what this terrorism was,” Stevenson told Winfrey.
During the most active years of lynching, the population of Blacks in the country was an estimated 7 million. Lynching reached its peak in 1892. When configured for today’s population, the 4,000 victims calculated by the EJI translates to about 24,000 lives lost about eight times the number of people who died on 9/11.
In 2015, EJI, a nonprofit group based in Alabama that fights against racial inequality in the legal system, released the report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” The report focused on the 12 most active lynching states in the country: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
The National Memorial to Peace and Justice is modeled after important projects in other countries used to overcome difficult histories of genocide, apartheid and horrific human rights abuses. The EJI said it was “designed to promote a more hopeful commitment to racial equality and just treatment of all people.”
A short walk from the memorial, and built on the site of a former slave warehouse, the EJI also created The Legacy Museum, which includes interactive media, sculpture and videography. It immerses visitors in the sights and sounds of the domestic slave trade, racial terrorism, the Jim Crow South, and the world’s largest prison system.
The April 26 opening of the memorial will be accompanied by several days of educational panels and presentations from leading national figures, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
A Concert for Peace and Justice is scheduled for April 27 and will feature the Roots, Common, Academy Award-winner for “Glory” from “Selma,” Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Usher and Kirk Franklin, among others.
“I’m hopeful that sites like the ones we are building and conversations like the ones we’re organizing will empower and inspire people to have the courage to create a more just and healthy future,” Stevenson said.