The first memorial to honor the victims of lynching opens in Montgomery, Alabama--and raises the question: What does it mean to confront the past?
Eight hundred weathered steel beams hang from the roof of a new memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Etched on each column is the name of a U.S. county and the people who were lynched there.
There's Caleb Gadly, lynched in Kentucky in 1894 for "walking behind the wife of his white employer"; Mary Turner, a pregnant woman, who was hung upside down, burned alive, then sliced open after denouncing her husband's 1918 lynching by a white mob; and Parks Banks, hanged in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman.
Thousands more are listed, many simply as "unknown" because their remains were never identified.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened earlier this year alongside a museum that explores the history of racism in America, is unlike any memorial this country has ever seen. It's the first one dedicated to the thousands of African-Americans who were lynched during a decades-long campaign of racial terror from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. While monuments to the Civil War and Confederate leaders dot the Southern landscape, the stories of these murdered men, women, and children have been largely downplayed or even ignored--until now.
Part of the power of the memorial is "just seeing the names of all these people," says Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (E.J.I.), the nonprofit organization behind the site. Many of them, he says, "have never been named in public."
The memorial shines a light on one of the nation's least recognized atrocities. More than 4,000 lynchings took place in the South between 1877 and 1950, according to a recent report by the E.J.I. Lynchings also happened in smaller numbers in the North. The total number of lynchings may never be known, as many went unreported or uninvestigated by local police.
Lynchings became widespread after the Civil War (1861-65), mostly in the South, as a tool to re-establish white supremacy--the belief that white people are superior to people of all other races and should therefore have control over society. During the period following the war, known as Reconstruction (1865-77), African-Americans were granted some freedoms. Congress passed the 14th Amendment, which gave black people citizenship and equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. For the first time, blacks in the South cast ballots, sat on juries, and were even elected to Congress--with the help of federal troops sent to the South to enforce the laws.
For many former slave owners, this was their worst fear come true.
"If blacks were allowed to continue, white supremacists surmised, they just might eclipse white people," says historian Kidada Williams, who has written a book on lynching. "That could not be allowed."
So when the federal government withdrew troops in 1877, it unleashed a violent backlash from many whites who were bitter about having to treat their former slaves as equals. And it gave rise to white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized blacks across the South.
Whites often used lynching as a way to suppress the black vote and to enforce Jim Crow laws, which segregated whites and blacks in public spaces, such as restrooms, restaurants, and schools. Lynchings continued into the 1950s and '60s, as African-Americans began to challenge the status quo during the civil rights movement.
The Murder of Emmett Till
In 1955, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till was buying candy at a grocery store in Mississippi when a white woman accused him of grabbing her. Four days later, Till was kidnapped, tortured, and killed. Nobody was ever convicted of the murder. The lynching made national news and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
It was also representative of one of the most pervasive and irrational fears during the Jim Crow era: that black males were preying on white women. Nearly 25 percent of the lynching victims E.J.I, documented were black males accused of sexual misconduct against white women.
Many other African-Americans were hanged for minor transgressions, such as using profane language, refusing to step off a sidewalk to make way for a white person, or failing to address a police officer as "mister."
Lynchings were frequently advertised in newspapers and held in prominent public spaces in front of thousands of white people, including children. White spectators sometimes had picnics and posed with the hanged bodies for photographs to send to loved ones.
"As public events, lynchings were meant to be seen and recorded," says Williams. "They were meant to terrorize and instill fear in black people for resisting white supremacy."
The fear of being lynched ripped apart many black families and communities. It played a major role in causing the Great Migration--when more than 6 million black Southerners fled to cities in the North, Midwest, and West from about 1916 to 1970.
Lynchings were tolerated--and often aided--by local officials. Only 1 percent of all the lynching cases after 1900 resulted in criminal convictions, according to the E.J.I. And efforts to make lynching a federal offense repeatedly failed: Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress between 1882 and 1968, but none were approved by the Senate.
That may change: In June, three senators introduced a bill that would finally make lynching a federal crime. As for Till, his accuser recently admitted to lying about what had happened in the grocery store, and this summer, the Department of Justice reopened its inquiry into the case.
The new memorial comes at a time when many Americans are rethinking how we should remember history. Recently, debates have raged in many cities over whether to remove monuments that honor Confederate leaders. Those in favor of removing the monuments argue that they distort history by paying tribute to people who fought to keep slavery in place while ignoring the violence and pain caused to the victims of slavery. But others say the monuments represent Southern pride and removing them would be erasing the history of the South.
Debates like these turned violent in August 2017, when a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to oppose the city's plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee left one person dead and several others injured.
In a sense, the new memorial is a counter to the hundreds of Confederate monuments that have been erected in the South. Stevenson of the E.J.I, says it's modeled after the Holocaust museum in Berlin, Germany, which is devoted to the millions of Jews and others massacred by the forces of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.
"In Berlin, you can't go anywhere without seeing stones and markers dedicated to the Jewish and Roma residents who were forced from their homes and taken to the concentration camps," Stevenson says. "In the American South, we've done the opposite. We've actually created symbols designed to make us feel great about our history, about the 19th century, about the good old days of the early 20th century."
To help visitors further understand the role racism has played in America since colonial times, the E.J.I, also opened the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration near the memorial. It connects the dots from slavery to lynching to mass incarceration, showing how racism and racial violence persist today. Visitors are confronted with troubling statistics, such as those showing that, a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, blacks are far more likely than whites to live in poverty, be imprisoned, and be killed by police.
"There are these terrible disparities in quality of life for people of color," says Stevenson, "and you begin asking questions about why these things persist, and I think it inevitably leads to wanting to talk more concretely about history."
For Stevenson and many others, lynchings are a part of that history--one that can no longer be ignored. Only by confronting this painful past, Stevenson insists, can America move forward.
"I'm not interested in talking about America's history because I want to punish America," he says. "I want to liberate America."
With reporting by Campbell Robertson and Vanessa Gregory of The New York Times.
'WE WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER'
BY SHIRAH DEDMAN
The great-grandaughter of a lynching victim reflects on her visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
In the third grade, as a homework assignment, I had to construct a family tree. It was then that I found out an ugly truth about my family history: My great-grandfather had been lynched.
It wasn't until I was much older that I began to truly understand what that meant. Old newspapers show that my great-grandfather, Thomas Miles Sr., was accused of harassing a white woman in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1912. Although he was found innocent by a judge, upon his release from jail, a mob strung him up from a tree in his community's baseball park for all to see.
After my great-grandfather was brutally murdered, my family fled Louisiana, leaving property and businesses behind. Some went to Chicago, while my grandfather and others went to Los Angeles. Six years old at that time, my grandfather was left without a father.
In April, I attended the opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. At the memorial, a jar filled with dirt from my great-grandfather's lynching site sits alongside jars commemorating other lynching victims.
Whereas the museum broke me down into tears, the memorial uplifted me. The steel columns etched with names of lynching victims hung above my head like people hanging from a tree. However, I found peace in knowing their deaths are being recognized--their stories lifted up, in hopes that we will always remember, so that one day we can say that we will never let this type of racial terror happen again.
LESSON PLAN: PAIRING A PRIMARY & SECONDARY SOURCE
TIMES PAST PAGES 18-21
Lexile levels available online
Shining a Spotlight on Lynching
The first memorial to honor the victims of lynching opens in Montgomery, Alabama--and raises the question: What does it mean to confront the past?
1 Set Focus: Pose this essential question: How should we acknowledge painful times in our history?
2 List Vocabulary: Share some of the challenging vocabulary words in the article (see right). Encourage students to use context to infer meanings as they read.
3 Engage: Ask students what they know about the history of lynchings in the U.S.
Analyze the Article
4 Read and Discuss: Ask students to read the Upfront article about lynchings. Review why the article is a secondary source. (It was written by someone who didn't personally experience or witness the events.) Then pose these critical-thinking questions:
> What is a lynching? What was the goal of white people in using lynchings? (A lynching is when a mob kills someone, often by hanging, without the legal authority to do so. White people used lynchings "to terrorize and instill fear in black people" so that they would not resist white supremacy, "to suppress the black vote," and "to enforce Jim Crow laws.")
> What was the response to lynchings by local and federal officials? (Local officials tolerated lynchings and often aided in them. According to one study, "only 1 percent of all the lynching cases after 1900 resulted in a criminal convictions." Federal officials reacted similarly, as "nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress between 1882 and 1968, but none were approved by the Senate.")
> What was the Great Migration? How does it relate to lynchings? (The Great Migration was the migration of 6 million black Southerners "to cities in the North, Midwest, and West from about 1916 to 1970." The lynchings in the South played a major role in prompting these Southerners to flee to safer areas.)
> What does Bryan Stevenson hope people will do after visiting the memorial and the museum? (He hopes people will "begin asking questions about why [disparities between white and black people] persist," will want to "talk more concretely about history," and will want to confront our painful past in order to help America move forward.)
5 Use the Primary Source: Project or distribute the PDF Witnessing a Lynching (p. T14), which features excerpts from an oral history from someone who witnessed a lynching. Discuss what makes it a primary source. (It provides direct, firsthand evidence concerning the topic.) Have students read the excerpt and answer the questions below (which appear on the PDF without answers).
> How would you describe the tone and purpose of these excerpts from Stevens's oral history?
(The tone is solemn, introspective, and matter-of-fact. The purpose is to help listeners/readers understand the awful history of lynchings in the United States.)
> What is Stevens trying to convey about the lynching when she says "you can't conceive it"? (Stevens is trying to convey that the lynching was so horrific that there is no way you can imagine the scene of the lynching or the ways the victim was being tortured unless you were actually there.)
> Why do you think the person who transcribed the interview put quotation marks around the word "boy"?
(Stevens twice refers to the victim of the lynching as a man. She uses the word "boy" only when later explaining how the young accuser would have described the man--as a "boy." At the time, many white people in the South called black men "boys" as a way of demeaning them. Stevens likely used a certain inflection in her voice to emphasize that the accuser would have used the word "boy" in this way. The transcriber likely put the word "boy" in quotation marks to help convey in writing what Stevens conveyed through her voice.)
> What does Stevens mean when she says "that's the kind of lynching that happened thousands of times"?
(Stevens means that thousands of other lynchings happened in the same way as the one she witnessed--because a mob of white people quickly became enraged over a baseless accusation. With this comment, she is emphasizing that the lynching she saw was not unique.)
> Based on the Upfront article and these excerpts, what was the prevailing attitude of white people toward lynchings? What is your perception of Stevens, given how she reacted to the lynching? Explain. (Answers will vary, but students should include evidence from the article and the primary source to support their ideas.)
Extend & Assess
6 Writing Prompt
Bryan Stevenson says, "We've actually created symbols designed to make us feel great about our history." Does he say this as praise for how we've handled remembering the past or as a point of concern? Do you agree with him? Explain your thoughts.
Use the quiz on p. T10 to assess comprehension.
8 Classroom Debate
Should the woman who lied about Emmett Till, which led to his lynching, be tried for murder?
9 Video & Paired Text
Watch and discuss the video about Jim Crow laws. Then have students read the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Have small groups discuss how the book explores racism, segregation, and the threat of a lynching in Alabama in the 1930s.
status quo (p. 20)
catalyst (p. 20)
transgressions (p. 21)
persist (p. 21)
disparities (p. 21)
Additional Resources upfrontmagazine.com
Print or project:
* Article Quiz (online and on p. HO)
* Witnessing a Lynching (primary source; online and on p. T14)
* Get a Clue (vocabulary; online only)
* Jim Crow South
Shining a Spotlight on Lynching
Choose the best answer for each of the following questions. For the analysis section, refer to the article as needed.
1. How many lynchings took place in the South between 1877 and 1950?
a fewer than 100
b about 800
c nearly 2,000
d more than 4,000
2. According to historian Kidada Williams, after the Civil War, many former slave owners feared that --.
a lynchings would be made illegal
b federal troops would leave the South too early
c laws might be put in place based on irrational fears
d black people might become more successful than white people.
3. What excuse did white mobs use to lynch black people?
a The accused used profane language,
b The accused refused to step aside for a white person,
c The accused failed to address a police officer in a certain way.
d all of the above
4. Bryan Stevenson modeled the National Memorial for Peace and Justice after the Holocaust Museum in Berlin because the museum --.
a focuses on revealing false accusations
b makes people feel proud of their history
c honors those persecuted by people in power
d presents a plan for moving past painful times in history
ANALYZE THE TEXT
5. Why does the author include a discussion of the monuments that honor Confederate leaders?
a to show an effect of the 14th Amendment
b to explain why Shirah Dedman researched her family history
c to point out how a specific period of time has been publicly remembered in the South
d to present an argument for why white supremacist groups rose up after the Civil War
6. When Dedman says, "... we will never let this type of racial terror happen again," her tone can best be described as --.
7. In the section "Acknowledging History," the word disparities most nearly means --.
a past eras
b mass arrests
c thoughtful questions
d noticeable differences
8. Which phrase from the article best supports the answer to question 7?
a "It connects the dots ..."
b "... blacks are far more likely than whites to live in poverty ..."
c "... why these things persist ..."
d "... leads to wanting to talk more concretely about history."
IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS Please use the other side of this paper for your responses.
9. Why were lynchings conducted as public events rather than in secret?
10. Why do you think the lynching of Emmett Till made national news in 1955? Why is the murder of Till still in the news today?
QUIZ * PAGE T10
1. [d] more than 4,000
2. [d] black people might become more successful than white people
3. [d] all of the above
4. [c] honors those persecuted by people in power
5. [c] to point out how a specific period of time has been publicly remembered in the South
6. [c] inspirational
7. [d] noticeable differences
8. [b] "... blacks are far more likely than whites to live in poverty ..."
PAIRING A PRIMARY & SECONDARY SOURCE
Witnessing a Lynching
In 1922, Thelma Stevens, a white woman, was a school teacher in Mississippi. One morning, several of her students asked her to be their chaperone for "a little bus ride." Stevens, who was 19 years old at the time, agreed without knowing the destination of the trip. When the bus arrived at a lynching, Stevens was horrified. Soon after, Stevens left teaching and dedicated the rest of her life to promoting civil rights. She died in 1990 at the age of 88. Below are excerpts from an oral history Stevens gave in 1972 about what she witnessed in 1922. Use the excerpts and the Upfront article about lynching to answer the questions at the bottom of this page.
Excerpts From an Interview With Thelma Stevens Recorded in 1972, About Events That Took Place in 1922
The third year I taught was out in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. And I suppose the event that happened that year was maybe the second most devastating thing that ever happened to me in my growing up days. See, I was still just nineteen years old then, at the end of my third year of teaching. Still hadn't turned twenty.... I was teaching high school the third year. And I coached the basketball girls and I taught Latin, Caesar.... So early on[e] morning, just before time for school to open, some of my basketball girls came dashing over to the teacher's home where all the teachers lived, and called me. Said, "Miss Thelma, we ... want to go on a little bus trip, but the principal won't let us go unless you go with us." They were all as old as I was, you see, but anyway, I was the teacher. So, I said, "Where are you going?" "Oh, that doesn't matter. Come on and go with us. We just want you to go with us." So I said, "Oh, all right." So I got myself out and got in the bus and went with them about three miles down the road. And suddenly the bus turned down into the hillside. And there were hundreds, literally hundreds, of people on the hillside. And there was a man hanging from a limb. And men standing all around him with guns in their hands, shooting at him. See, they ... It was a lynching. And you can't conceive it, and I'm not trying to tell you what it was like, but if you can imagine anything any more devastating than that, then you're very good, you're very imaginative. But, anyway, as quickly as I could, I got the bus turned around. I got the man, the driver, to turn the bus around. The girls had jumped out of the bus before we stopped, and then I just went out and just made them ... you know, I just really just ...
The afternoon before, late the afternoon before, somebody--I don't know now, I don't remember now who it was ... said a little girl, that was maybe going home from school that afternoon, went on a trail through the woods. And when she got home she told her father that a black man, or surely a black "boy", you know, a black "boy" had followed her on the trail. That is, he had walked behind her, some distance behind her. He might not have been following her. After all, he didn't molest her, didn't touch her, and didn't say anything to her. Well, the father got all upset. That's what happened. I found that out later. But this was the tale that was going the night before. So what happened was that the father alerted all the men in the community, so they got a big posse out in the woods, and they finally found the so-called follower, the "boy", who had followed this little girl. And they just took him out the next morning, out on the hillside by the woods, hanged him to a limb and shot him to death. I mean, it was just as simple as that. That's the kind of lynching that happened thousands of times, I'm sure.
1. How would you describe the tone and purpose of these excerpts from Stevens's oral history?
2. What idea is Stevens trying to convey about the lynching when she says "you can't conceive it"?
3. Why do you think the person who transcribed the interview put quotation marks around the word "boy"?
4. What does Stevens mean when she says "that's the kind of lynching that happened thousands of times"?
5. Based on the Upfront article and these excerpts, what was the prevailing attitude of white people toward lynchings? What is your perception of Stevens, given how she reacted to the lynching? Explain.
Caption: A sculpture depicting slavery in front of the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Caption: Each column at the new memorial displays the name of an American county and the names of the people lynched there.
Caption: Jars filled with soil from the sites where lynchings took place are on display at the memorial.
Caption: A mob watches a lynching in Paris, Texas, 1893.
Caption: White supremacists march to oppose the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Some see the new lynching memorial as a counter to Confederate monuments.
Caption: Emmett Till was 14 when he was lynched in 1955.
Caption: Shirah Dedman And a 1912 newspaper Article on her great-grandfather's lynching