Lynching memorial promotes understanding, healing
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Thousands of Confederate monuments dot the South and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s nice when something pops up, as Paul Harvey used to say, to tell the rest of the story.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice formally opened April 26 near the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is a stark documentation of the number of human beings killed in the South during the sad and sorry era known as Jim Crow.
Primarily, the memorial documents lynchings.
The Equal Justice Institute, a nonprofit lawyers’ group dedicated to overturning unjust convictions, is the organization behind the memorial.
It documented more than 4,400 cases of individuals being hanged by vigilantes in the Old Confederacy between 1877 — when the last federal troops pulled out of the legion — and the last documented lynching, in 1941.
These non-judicial executions were carried out by lawless bands, some connected to the Ku Klux Klan, others ad hoc. Often, the victims were not only hanged, but also burned, castrated or flayed alive. (The flecks of skin were often saved as souvenirs.)
Some of the victims were white, most notably the Jewish mill manager Leo Frank, who was pulled from a jail and lynched in 1915 outside Marietta, Ga.
The overwhelming majority, however, were African-American men. Their “crimes” included such offenses as holding a photo of a white woman, trying to vote or generally acting “uppity.”
The perpetrators of these crimes generally were never punished, nor even brought to trial.
These weren’t just sadistic homicides. They were deliberate acts of terror, meant to frighten the black population into toeing the line of Jim Crow segregation and low-wage labor. Tote that barge, lift that bale, or you might wind up as some of the “Strange Fruit” from Billie Holiday’s harrowing song.
Tar Heels can tell themselves thank God for Mississippi or Alabama. The death toll from lynchings in North Carolina was 123 in that seven-decade period, according to the institute. (They count a few more cases than official sources, but their research appears solid.) North Carolina’s toll was lower than some Deep South states.
Yet it was still horrific — and it hits close to home. According to the memorial, 22 people were lynched in New Hanover, more than in any other North Carolina county. On the memorial’s tally of counties, New Hanover ranks in the grisly Top 20 of most lynchings in the entire nation.
Those who know the history of 1898 know that a lot of hate brewed in and around Wilmington. It is shocking, though, to be confronted by the raw, bare numbers.
It is not enough, either, to claim these things all happened long, long ago. The after-effects of that terror still poison race relations in this region and hinder progress.
They make a hollow lie of our preachments to other nations about the war on terror. Terror made a home here for a long, long time.
We can’t bring the dead back to life. Nothing can make this right. We can, however, do whatever we can to treat each other as human beings — and never to forget the many times we did not.
The Star-News of Wilmington