Truth and Reconciliation in America: Equal Justice Initiative

The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence begins: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

 

National Memorial For Peace and Justice, a lynching and slavery memorial, opened in Alabama in 2018. It is an Equal Justice Initiative. EJI believes that publicly confronting the truth about our history is the first step towards recovery and reconciliation. Inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization behind the memorial, said the plans for the memorial and an accompanying museum were rooted in decades spent as a lawyer in Alabama courtrooms, witnessing a criminal justice system that treats African-Americans with particular cruelty, or indifference.

Stevenson says that slavery did not end -- it morphed into lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation, and mass incarceration today.
In the
TED Talk below, he discusses the process of Truth and Reconciliation. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice provides a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection to advance truth and reconciliation around race in America and to more honestly confront the legacy of slavery, lynching, and segregation. Stevenson explains. Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape, This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror.  The site includes a memorial square with 805 six-foot monuments to symbolize the 4,500 racial terror lynching victims in 805 counties in the United States between 1877 and 1950. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the monuments. These are just the victims who have been identified. There were thousands more. The memorial is more than a static monument. Identical monuments are waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. So, 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.

 

There are 87 videos on the site. Click the graphics below to watch those videos. A New York Times article, videos from CNN, Fox News, PBS, and 60 Minutes with Oprah Winfrey, and other videos about the EJI museum are shown further below.

New York Times:  A Lynching Memorial Is Opening. The Country Has Never Seen Anything Like It. "The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening Thursday in Montgomery, Ala., is dedicated to victims of white supremacy. It points out: "The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk....There is nothing like it in the country. Which is the point.... Mr. Stevenson decided that a single memorial was the most powerful way to give a sense of the scale of the bloodshed. But also at the site are duplicates of each steel column...to be disseminated around the country to the counties where lynchings were carried out. People in these counties can request them — dozens of such requests have already been made — but they must show that they have made efforts locally to “address racial and economic injustice.

Videos
 

  1. PBS News Hour: A National Memorial Confronts the Terror of Lynching
     

  2. The Guardian: Pain and Terror: America Remembers Its Past
     

  3. 60 Minutes: The Sculpture of Slavery: "To understand lynching, you have to understand slavery."
     

  4. 60 Minutes: A new memorial honors more than 4,000 victims of lynching

Ida B. Wells: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), known as Ida B. Wells, was born into slavery in Mississippi. Freed by the American Civil War, she lost both her parents and a sibling in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when she was 16 years old. She went to work as a teacher and kept the rest of the family intact with the help of her grandmother.

 

Wells was America's first investigative journalist, educator, feminist, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She arguably became the most famous black woman in America, during a life that was centered on combating prejudice and violence -- especially lynchings. On May 4, 1884, Wells refused to give up her first class seat on a train, 71 years before the activist Rosa Parks showed similar resistance on a bus.

 

Wells wrote that she believed that about 10,000 Black men had been lynched between the end of the Civil War (1865) and 1930.. That would be about 154 lynchings for each of the 65 years -- or about 3 a week, one every other day!

In 1892, when lynching reached its high-water mark, 241 people were lynched -- or almost 5 each week. The police and government often cooperated in the lynchings and the media announced them like fun public events Often hundreds, and even thousands of people attended, bringing their young kids. They took photos and turned them into postcards.

 

Wells points out: "The nineteenth century lynching mob cuts off ears, toes, and fingers, strips off flesh, and distributes portions of the body as souvenirs among the crowd. If the leaders of the mob are so minded, coal-oil is poured over the body and the victim is then roasted to death....In Paris (Texas) the officers of the law delivered the prisoner to the mob.

 

The mayor gave the school children a holiday and the railroads ran excursion trains so that the people might see a human being burned to death.... This condition of affairs were brutal enough and horrible enough if it were true that lynchings occurred only because of the commission of crimes against women -- as is constantly declared by ministers, editors, lawyers, teachers, statesmen, and even by women themselves....

 

the Atlanta Constitution's reward of $500 keyed the mob to the necessary burning and roasting pitch."

Although lynching has steadily increased in number and barbarity during the last 20 years, there has been no single effort put

forth by the many moral and philanthropic forces in the country to put a stop to this wholesale slaughter. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.

Compensation For Lynching

 

Black Americans, living in the Land of the Free where the Declaration of Independence recognizes that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights -- including life -- endured this non-stop traumatizing terrorism for almost 100 years. Although the US government offered no protection or compensation for its own citizens, Wells points out that the US paid other countries when they protested the lynching of their citizens here!

Wells adds: "It is generally known that mobs in Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming, and other States have lynched subjects of other countries. When their different governments demanded satisfaction, our country was forced to confess her inability to protect said subjects in the several States because of our State-rights doctrines, or in turn demand punishment of the lynchers.

This confession, while humiliating in the extreme, was not satisfactory; and, while the United States cannot protect, she can pay.  This she has done, and it is certain will have to do again in the case of the recent lynching of Italians in Louisiana.
The United States already has paid in indemnities for lynching nearly a half million dollars....in our own land and under our own flag, the writer can give day and detail of one thousand men, women, and children who during the last six years were put to death without trial before any tribunal on earth."

In the 1890s, when Wells documented lynching in the United States, she showed that lynching was often used in the South as a way to control or punish Black people who competed with whites, rather than being based on criminal acts by black people, as was usually claimed by whites. Wells began to investigate lynching when three of her friends who were store owners were lynched because they competed successfully with a nearby White store owner -- even with some White customers!  For her reporting, which was carried nationwide in black newspapers, Well's presses were destroyed by a mob of white men.

Wells wrote: "Our country's national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an "unwritten law" that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal."

 

Subjected to continuing threats, Wells left Memphis for Chicago where she married and had a family, and with the support of her husband, pursued her work writing, speaking, and organizing for civil rights for the rest of her life.  Wells was a skilled and persuasive speaker and traveled internationally on lecture tours to rally support against lynching.

Videos and Books

The first video below is an interview with Daniel Duster, the grandson of Ida B. Wells

The second video below is an interview with Linda McMurry, author of the second book shown below.

Click the graphics to see the books on Amazon or to watch the videos.

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