Countless Americans, even many whose roots here stretch back for generations, are unaware of the fact that, within the memory of some still with us today, people were hung or burned by mobs in our country without trial, and that crowds gathered to cheer on the lynchings. Or that postcards of the murdered men and women, sometimes with bystanders posing with smiles alongside the corpses, were popular keepsakes.
While the period between the 1860s and 1950s saw the lynchings of more than 1,000 non-blacks, including Mexicans, Chinese, Italians and Jews (Leo Frank the most well-known), the vast majority of mob murders were of African-Americans, slaves and freemen alike. Most lynchings were in the “Cotton Belt” southern states, but blacks were hung without trial in a number of northern and western states as well.
Some of the murdered were mere children, like Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old African-American lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after a white woman said she was offended by his demeanor in her family’s grocery store. His killers were acquitted, and, decades later, his accuser admitted that she had entirely fabricated her charge.
The last recorded lynching in the United States was of a black man named Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981. Several Ku Klux Klan members, upset at a local jury’s hesitation to find a black defendant guilty of a murder, decided that killing another member of the accused’s race was a fitting response, and chose the unassuming college student at random as he walked home from a store. They beat, strangled and stabbed him to death, and left his body hanging from a tree across from a house owned by a local Klan leader.
Last week saw the opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama. Dedicated to showing the horrors inflicted on black Americans in the generations since slavery, they are the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that provides legal services to people who have been wrongfully convicted or face other issues in the criminal justice system. Its headquarters are a few blocks away, in a building that was once a warehouse in Montgomery’s sprawling slave market, now the site of the new museum.
The gallery is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy, and features photographs, sculptures, relics and accounts of the violence visited by racists upon black Americans, without trial or after kangaroo court proceedings, over the decades.
At the center of the memorial is a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns hanging from the building’s roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the number — with names or the epithet “unknown” — of those lynched there. Visitors are first accosted by them at eye level as they enter but as they proceed to walk down the hall, the floor steadily descends so that, by the end, the columns are dangling above, putting the visitors in the position of the happy spectators in the old lynching photographs and postcards.
The museum is the brainchild of New York University School of Law professor Bryan Stevenson. Inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Mr. Stevenson, whose great-grandparents were slaves in Virginia, decided that a dedicated memorial was the most powerful way to give a sense of the scale of the lynching bloodshed. He and a small group of lawyers spent years immersing themselves in archives and county libraries to identify the murders.
They published a report in 2015 documenting more than 4,000 extrajudicial killings of black men and women used as a form of social control in America between 1877 and 1950, far more than had been previously documented. And the group continues to uncover additional lynchings in its research.
Mr. Stevenson says he embarked on his quest to establish the museum not “because I want to punish America,” but rather as a step toward “committing to truth and reconciliation.”
We Jews are rightly sensitive to the need to remind the public and our young of historical evils that are receding from the consciousness of far too many. It is imperative to do all we can to preserve the memory of our recent tragic past.
And so we can, and should, appreciate the need for all Americans, even those of us whose forebears were far from American shores when African-Americans were killed and seen as subhuman, to ensure that the tragic history of American racial violence, too, is not forgotten.