400 Years Blog #15 – Remembering Lynching Victims at Memorial Square

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Bryan Stevenson is an American hero. His book, Just Mercy, documents his work as a lawyer and social justice activist. He has for years defended the poor and people of color caught up in our criminal justice system, some facing execution.
Now Stevenson has created the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to remember the horror of lynchings and to honor the victims. 800 six-foot steel columns symbolizing thousands of victims of lynching hang by chains like corpses. Each column represents one of the counties where a racial lynching took place, and each is engraved with the names of each county’s victims. Most of those responsible escaped being called to justice.
Why spend time looking back at history while there are so many people today on death row and unjustly incarcerated? Stevenson believes the past influences the present. Jordan Steiker organized a conference exploring how death sentences became more common as the frequency of lynchings fell. He explained that there’s an “incredible overlap between places that had lynching and places that continue to use the death penalty…. [T]he death penalty is clearly a substitute for lynching.”
Working through his Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson placed the lynching memorial in the heart of the confederacy: Montgomery, Alabama. He built this haunting tribute close to where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy and where in 1963 George Wallace said, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Stevenson wants county officials from across the nation to take duplicate columns from the National Memorial back to their counties in order to create memorials there.
Will all 800 columns be claimed and displayed in their respective counties? Currently, there are over 700 monuments to the Confederacy in these counties, standing in the way. These are the memorials that some of those lynched had to walk by before their murder, reminders to their descendants of the power of racism.
One such descendant of a lynching victim, Faye Walker Howell, looks forward to visiting the National Memorial for Peace. Her distant cousin, Wes Johnson, was lynched in 1937 in Tumbleton, Alabama. On his headstone are the following words from John 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It remains to be seen if the truth enshrined at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice will bring such freedom.
Lesson #56: Our criminal justice system has always privileged the wealthy and denied equal justice under law.
Lesson #57: The weight of suspended columns offers a visceral connection to lynching victims.
Lesson #58: Violence toward blacks didn’t disappear – it merely shifted from lynchings to incarceration.
Lesson #59: While racism is a national problem, the historical legacy of southern racism is particularly powerful.
Lesson #60: Battles over what to do with memorials to the Confederacy are more than symbolic for the victims of historical racism in the United States.
Lesson #61: The truth of history can bring liberation.
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