Never Forget

A new memorial to lynching victims forces America to confront its painful past

31 October 2018
The ground surrounding the memorial was strewn with installations. A few steps from the entrance was the unsparing display of life-sized bronze statues of black men, women and children in shackles.
Courtesy Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures

On 30 August 1887, in the town of Brunswick, Tennessee, a black mill worker named James Eastman came out victorious in a fight his white employer had started. On 1 April 1892, an unidentified black man—reported to be the only black man in the county—was “standing around” in a white neighbourhood in Millersburg, Ohio.According to the Aurora Daily Express, it was “alleged that he ‘sneaked around town,’ that he ‘stared at people,’ and committed several grave misdemeanors against the people and dignity of the state. But it [did] not appear that he perpetrated any crime.” On 23 July 1926, a farmer’s daughter in Wythe County, Virginia, gave birth to a child whose father was Raymond Bird, a black farmhand. All three men were lynched.

Hazel Turner was lynched in Lowndes County, Georgia on 18 May 1918. He was one of at least eleven black people murdered by mobs after the killing of a white farmer. His wife, Mary, who was eight months pregnant, maintained his innocence and swore to bring his killers to justice. The following day, she too was lynched. As documented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Turner was still alive when a member of the mob split her abdomen open with a knife and her unborn child fell on the ground. The baby was stomped and crushed … Turner’s body was riddled with hundreds of bullets.”

The lynching of thousands of black people counts among the least recognised atrocities in the United States. They revealed unspeakable cruelty and apathy— victims were left hanging for days, severed fingers were passed around, picnics were organised to watch lynchings and postcards were made with the victims’ photographs. Most incidents remained uninvestigated, blamed on parties unknown.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened on 26 April this year in Montgomery, Alabama, seeks to correct this by documenting over four thousand lynchings that occurred between 1877 and 1950. According to Derryn Moten, a professor of history at Alabama State University, the memorial reminds us that the victims “did not die at the hands of parties unknown.”

“Lynchings were racial terrorism used by a vindictive South, unremorseful over its vanquishing in the Civil War and resentful of its occupation by northern troops during reconstruction,” Moten told me. The Reconstruction era that followed the abolition of slavery in 1865, during which black Americans made significant progress towards political equality, witnessed a white backlash in the form of segregationist Jim Crow laws and a reign of terror through shadowy organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Even at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, Moten said, the cars of many Alabama state troopers still displayed bumper stickers that read, “Hell no, we won’t forget!”—a popular slogan referring to the erstwhile Confederacy.

Dharitri Bhattacharjee is a South Asian historian based in Austin, Texas. She is writing her first book on provincial decolonisation in Bengal.

Keywords: mob lynching racism America National Memorial for Peace and Justice Legacy Museum Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson Montgomery Jim Crow Ku Klux Klan civil rights Derryn Moten Kwame Akoto-Bamfo deep south Kelly Kennington Auburn University Jody Allen terrorism