In 2008, veteran newscaster Ted Koppel told NPR’s Tell Me More host Michel Martin that “lynchings are a form of terrorism.” Terror that was rooted in a region of the United States fearful of equality for black men and women.
Lynchings were a tool used to oppress freed slaves after the Civil War. They were often committed by mobs who murdered victims with impunity, often joined by law enforcement, sometimes on the very steps of the courthouse.
In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative released a report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Terror” which documented more than 4,400 lynchings of black people — 800 more than had been previously reported.
Every society has had forms of extrajudicial punishments. The legal and cultural basis for American lynchings were imported from Europe and firmly implanted in colonial America. The origin of the term lynching has been attributed to a Virginian named Charles Lynch. He oversaw an extrajudicial court in a colonial Virginia county that incarcerated Loyalist supporters of the British during the Revolutionary War. Lynch’s name was adopted more for the extrajudicial — not an official sanctioned court — nature of his conduct, not racial underpinnings.
In an effort to begin the healing and raise awareness of the legacy of Southern injustice and brutality the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened this week overlooking the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. The museum is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy.
According to the New York Times, the museum does not rely on conventional historic artifacts and detached commentary. “It is perhaps better described as the presentation of an argument, supported by firsthand accounts and contemporary documents, that the slavery system did not end but evolved: From the family-shattering domestic slave trade to the decades of lynching terror, to the suffocating segregation of Jim Crow to the age of mass incarceration in which we now live.”
It is altogether fitting that the Memorial sits high above the state capitol in Montgomery, which still flies the national flag of the Confederate States of America.
The last lynching in this country occurred in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981. Members of the Ku Klux Klan beat and killed Michael Donald, a young African-American man, and hung his body from a tree. Donald was randomly targeted after a trial in Mobile of a black man accused of killing a white man ended in a mistrial.
One of Donald’s killers, Henry Hays, was sentenced to death and executed in 1997. The execution of Hays was the first in Alabama since 1913 for a white-on-black crime. It was the only execution of a Klan member during the 20th century for the murder of an African-American.
The country is struggling to come to terms with its history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynchings and segregation. As states and municipalities across the south debate the removal of Confederate monuments, the memorial shines a light on the legacy of racism in the American South.
The memorial is a stark reminder of the horrendous acts that men and women are capable of inflicting on one another. The memorial has a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. According to the Washington Post, etched on each column is the name of a county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.”
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization behind the memorial, said inspiration for the memorial came from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Thinking of America in terms of the Holocaust and Apartheid may be difficult, but racial oppression is an issue the country must face. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice may be the place to continue the process of reconciliation and healing.