New memorial and museum: where the “community” impacted by lynching includes women
When the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened on April 26 in Montgomery, Alabama, many declared it to be an unprecedented challenge to Americans to face their violent past and present. Together, the museum and memorial model an ethical, action-oriented approach to history. Besides displaying 800 six-foot columns that represent the counties in which lynchings occurred, the surrounding six-acre park includes a field with 800 duplicate columns, urging counties to claim them and do the work of reconciliation in their local communities. According to EJI, “Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.” Yet, what makes the project remarkable is also what most connects it to longstanding traditions.
Both the memorial and the museum call on Americans to face the nation’s violent past, but they do so without reproducing what people most associate with lynching: gruesome images of mutilated bodies hanging from trees, what Billie Holiday famously called “strange fruit.” The memorial uses suspended six-foot columns to represent the more than 4,400 lynch victims whose deaths went unpunished by state and federal authorities. (Even when lynching photographs are reproduced, the viewer's gaze lands primarily on white perpetrators, not those they brutalized.) Likewise, the museum houses jars of soil from lynching sites that feature the name of each victim.
By refusing to reproduce gruesome images and by urging community involvement in a process of healing — that starts with actually acknowledging the wrong done — the projects suggest that improving the present and future requires recognizing that racial violence harmed women and children, not just men.
The fact that most Americans think of lynching as an injustice that targeted men has enabled shamelessly unscrupulous characters, such as Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and Clarence Thomas, to cast themselves as victims of unreasonable “mobs.” These claims exploited the fact that mobs had justified themselves with an egregious lie: that lynching was the response of protective white men who avenged the rapes white women suffered at the hands of black brutes. Black feminists therefore continued the work of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells by noting how routinely the nation ignores the sexual vulnerability of black and brown women. By labeling black men rapists, white men distracted from their systematic rape of black women, which had made slavery profitable and did not cease after Emancipation. When Cosby, Kelly, and Thomas tried to distract from their predatory tendencies, they similarly aimed to make sexual violence against women of color a non-issue. Ultimately, commentators building on Wells’ work ensure that lynching is not remembered simply as a clash between white and black men. They remind Americans that lynching always targeted women and children, not only with the noose but also by devastating their families and communities.
While de-centering gruesome images, EJI’s memorial and museum continue traditions that helped targeted families and communities survive and thrive despite unrelenting racist attacks. In the 1910s and 1920s, for instance, African American playwrights wrote scripts that placed a spotlight on happily intact black homes, detailing what happened before, during, and after a lynching. As a result, the plays did not focus on physical violence so much as they insisted that lynching was not a result of black criminality but an assertion of white domination. Most often, victims were targeted because they were successful and therefore guilty of disregarding their “proper,” subordinate role in society. Their deaths served as a terrorizing warning to those who survived: Know your place!
Like those plays, the memorial and museum are remarkable for their investment in directing attention away from physical violence and toward its reverberating political, social, and psychic effects. This approach emerges from a commitment to survivors. When not reeling from being bombarded with naked brutality, one more readily wonders, How did communities cope with these unjust losses? How did African Americans help each other continue to believe that they were citizens when their nation was so busy insisting that they simply did not belong? Very often, it was women who led their families and communities in the work of coping in the midst of white supremacist violence. Though women were sometimes lynched, they were always part of the communities and families left in the mob’s wake.
Founded by Bryan Stevenson, civil rights litigator and author of Just Mercy, EJI aligns its work with earlier practices by amplifying the contributions of women. As a genre, lynching drama was primarily written by black women, and it put forth the black lawyer as the soldier needed in a new era of struggle. African Americans had fought for black citizenship during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, but it was time to take the struggle to the nation’s courts. EJI joins this tradition as it advances the work of women attorneys. For example, it continues the efforts of Sherrilyn Ifill, who wrote the book on truth and reconciliation for communities where lynchings occurred, and Michelle Alexander, who taught the nation that mass incarceration maintains a uniquely American caste system — a system that racial violence (in its many forms) reinforces.
As important, the memorial and museum include the names and stories of women who were lynched and feature contributions from women artists, such as sculptor Dana King and acclaimed author Toni Morrison. There is also a commitment to acknowledging that women’s roles have been downplayed, such as when the focus on Martin Luther King, Jr. (or even Rosa Parks) overshadows the large network of women who sparked and sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
EJI is committed to making the connection between lynchings of the past and mass incarceration today, and the importance of that commitment is underscored by the fact that women of color constitute the fastest growing population among the incarcerated (and the soon-to-be incarcerated). Further, EJI is doing this work with attention to the ground on which it stands in multiple ways. For instance, the museum is built on the former site of a slave warehouse, highlighting the fact that lynching is linked not only to the prison-industrial complex of our present moment but also to a past in which the nation built its very foundation on slavery.
As #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo shape public conversation in ways that can move the country toward greater justice, Bryan Stevenson and the entire Equal Justice Initiative staff offer an invaluable example of coalition building and collaboration. Like so many women and men of earlier generations who gained less visibility than is currently commanded by the memorial and museum, EJI understands that any hope for healing must be rooted in accountability, which begins with engaging those whose experiences and contributions have been marginalized. At both the community level and the national level, EJI is modeling an approach that serves the entire nation, despite Americans’ traditional resistance to it. Namely, these projects reject the idea that patriotism requires the silence of survivors.
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