The recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., calls upon the entire nation to reckon with what too many people would prefer to pretend never happened: decades of terror aimed at blacks through the tool of lynching. A team of dedicated researchers and justice seekers working as the Equal Justice Institute has documented about 4,400 lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Men. Women. Children. Shot. Dismembered. Hanged. Burned alive. Fetuses cut from mothers’ wombs.
These diabolical acts sometimes took place in broad daylight, publicized by local newspapers with headlines such as this one in the Atlanta Constitution in April 1899: "Determined Mob After Hose; He Will Be Lynched if Caught.” When Sam Hose was captured, after days of grotesque “fake news” in competing newspapers, special trains loaded with people left Atlanta for a town nearby to watch the lynching. As souvenirs, they collected pieces of his ears, fingers and genitals that were sliced off before he was barbecued. Just post-church entertainment three weeks after Easter Sunday.
Here in Maryland about 40 lynchings have been documented, and soil from eight sites — three in Salisbury, three in Prince Anne, one in Crisfield and one in Towson — have been added to a display at the Legacy Museum, which is a short distance from the lynching memorial. In Salisbury in 1931, Matthew Williams, accused of killing his white employer was tossed from a hospital window to a waiting mob, stabbed with an ice pick and, as recounted in the Washington Post a few years ago, “dragged three blocks behind a truck to the lawn of the courthouse in downtown Salisbury.” They hanged him, then dragged his body through the black part of town, “cut off his fingers and toes, threw them on the porches and in the yards of the colored people’s homes” with the suggestion that they “make [n-word] sandwiches out of them.” Then the marauders doused what was left of him with gasoline and drunkenly watched him burn to a crisp.
For the healing of the nation, we cannot let bygones be bygones.
Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer and author who is leading this crusade for remembrance, says: “We believe in truth and reconciliation, but we know that truth and reconciliation are sequential. We can’t get to where we want to go, if we don’t tell the truth first.” As with what happened to Sam Hose and Matthew Williams, the truth is ugly. It is blood curdling. It is the stuff of nightmares.
But Mr. Stevenson — and the memorial — challenge us to open our eyes and to meditate on this truth. “Lynching,” he told “60 Minutes” last month, “was intended to send a message that if you try to vote, if you try to advocate for your rights, if you insist on fair wages, if you do anything that complicates white supremacy and white dominance of political power, we will kill you.”
While many people want to forget the lynching of blacks, the theologian James Cone, who died over the weekend, reminded us that the crucifixion of Jesus, which pious Christians recall daily, “was a first century lynching.” He often wrote about the connection between the cross and the lynching tree.
Cone, Mr. Stevenson, the writer Michele Alexander, the filmmaker Ava Duvernay and the playwright Anna Deavere Smith are among those who draw an unbroken line from slavery to the lynching era to mass incarceration. Lynching, they say, is very much with us — but in different permutations. In an essay written in 2007 in response to nooses left in public places to intimate blacks in schools, in workplaces and so forth, Cone wrote:
"Whenever society treats a people as if they have no rights or dignity or worth, as the government did to blacks during Katrina, they are being lynched covertly. Whenever people are denied jobs, health care, housing and the basic necessities of life, they are being lynched. There are a lot of ways to lynch a people. Whenever a people cry out to be recognized as human beings and the society ignores them, they are being lynched. As such, these inequities recreate the murder of Christ again and again.”
Whether theology floats your boat or whether you are a secular humanist, the legacy of lynching should be on your social justice radar screen and participating in acts of remembering and reconciliation with organizations like the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project must surely be a priority.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.