Me­mo­rial to con­front South’s trou­bled his­tory of lynch­ings

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Jay Reeves The As­so­ci­ated Press

South­ern states have long wel­comed tourists re­trac­ing the foot­steps of the late Martin Luther King Jr. and oth­ers who op­posed se­gre­ga­tion. Now the Alabama city that was the first cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­acy is set to be­come home to a pri­vately funded mu­seum and mon­u­ment that could make some vis­i­tors wince: a me­mo­rial to black lynch­ing vic­tims.

The non­profit Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive has an­nounced it is build­ing a me­mo­rial in the state cap­i­tal of Mont­gomery de­voted to 4,075 blacks its re­search shows were killed by lynch­ing in the U.S. from 1877 to 1950.

The non­profit’s direc­tor, Bryan Stevenson, said the aim is to help “change the land­scape” of Amer­i­can racial dis­course by openly ac­knowl­edg­ing a painful past, much as Ger­many has Holo­caust memo­ri­als and South Africa a mu­seum on its past state-sanc­tioned se­gre­ga­tion — apartheid.

He said that while hun­dreds of whites were lynched in roughly the same pe­riod of U.S. his­tory, the me­mo­rial’s fo­cus will be on “ter­ror lynch­ings” against blacks in a dozen South­ern states — whether by hang­ing, gun­shots, beat­ings, burn­ings or other forms of killing used in the past to ter­ror­ize black com­mu­ni­ties.

“I don’t think we can af­ford to con­tinue pre­tend­ing that there aren’t these re­ally trou­bling chap­ters in our his­tory,” Stevenson said. “I think we’ve got to deal with it.”

Set to open next year on the site of a former low-cost hous­ing project, the mon­u­ment is to be ac­com­pa­nied by a mu­seum a few blocks away ex­plor­ing the his­tory of blacks in Amer­ica from slav­ery to the present.

Work is al­ready un­der way on both. How they will be re­ceived is an open ques­tion.

Paus­ing at a historical plaque while visit­ing Mont­gomery’s civil rights sites, North Carolina tourist Nancy Lange hes­i­tated at the thought of a lynch­ing me­mo­rial. “That is tough. I can’t even think be­yond that word,” said Lange, 58, who’s white.

But daugh­ter Teresa Lange, 27, said a me­mo­rial could be valu­able in teach­ing about Amer­ica’s racial past and fos­ter­ing con­ver­sa­tion about to­day’s cli­mate of Black Lives Mat­ter, po­lice vi­o­lence against mi­nori­ties and racial strife.

“How many peo­ple talk about lynch­ing? How many peo­ple talk about the hate crimes that still go on to­day?” she said. “As a tourist I think it would be a good thing . ... I’d go see it.”

Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive said the mon­u­ment and mu­seum also would help counter glo­ri­fi­ca­tion, in some quar­ters, of the Con­fed­er­acy across the South while telling the painful story of race in Amer­ica. The law firm and its founder, Stevenson, rep­re­sent death row in­mates and ad­vo­cates for racial jus­tice.

The group al­ready has erected bronze plaques around Mont­gomery to de­note by­gone slave mar­kets; an­other group has built a me­mo­rial hon­or­ing civil rights mar­tyrs, mostly African-Amer­i­cans. Else­where in Mont­gomery, a marker ex­plains the his­tory of the church par­son­age bombed while King lived there in 1956.

The mon­u­ment set for a hill in view of Alabama’s Capi­tol — where the Con­fed­er­acy was formed — is to in­clude thou­sands of names of lynch­ing vic­tims etched on hun­dreds of con­crete col­umns. Each col­umn rep­re­sents a U.S. county where a lynch­ing oc­curred. The names were gath­ered both in past re­search and new work by Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive.

The nearby mu­seum is to house what or­ga­niz­ers de­scribe as the na­tion’s largest col­lec­tion of in­for­ma­tion on lynch­ing. Lo­cated in the non­profit’s head­quar­ters, it also will in­clude pre­sen­ta­tions about the do­mes­tic slave trade, racial se­gre­ga­tion and the in­car­cer­a­tion of large num­bers of blacks to­day.

Stevenson said the fi­nal de­sign of both the me­mo­rial and mu­seum will de­pend on fundrais­ing, though the Ford Foun­da­tion al­ready has given $2 mil­lion.

Alabama tourism direc­tor Lee Sen­tell said the project has the po­ten­tial to be im­por­tant. But he said his agency will need to find out more about the new project be­fore de­cid­ing whether to pro­mote it along­side civil rights at­trac­tions such as the Birm­ing­ham Civil Rights In­sti­tute or the Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge in Selma, where marchers for vot­ing rights were beaten by state po­lice in 1965.

“It is a dif­fi­cult sub­ject for most all of us South­ern­ers to con­tem­plate be­cause peo­ple who are alive to­day have never had to give this sub­ject much thought,” Sen­tell said. He added of the me­mo­rial that “the ex­e­cu­tion of the de­tails will ei­ther make peo­ple glad they vis­ited the lo­ca­tion or not.”

He said Alabama be­gan pro­mot­ing civil rights sites for tourism in the 1980s. A “Black Her­itage Guide” pub­lished then was up­dated and later mor­phed into the “Alabama Civil Rights Trail,” a guide of mu­se­ums and his­toric sites.

Not ev­ery­one is on board with a lynch­ing me­mo­rial.

Marlin Tay­lor, an AfricanAmer­i­can vis­i­tor from Spokane, Wash­ing­ton, was sur­prised by it.

“With the cli­mate in Amer­ica right now I don’t know that that’s a good idea,” Tay­lor said at the civil rights me­mo­rial out­side the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, a pub­lic in­ter­est law firm. “I feel like that could be more di­vi­sive than any­thing.”

But the Alabama com­man­der of the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Veter­ans, Jimmy Hill, sup­ports it. He said telling the story of the lynch­ings will help peo­ple un­der­stand Amer­ica’s tan­gled, painful past.

“Yes, it’s go­ing to hurt some peo­ple. There are some peo­ple who are go­ing to see that and say they wish the story wouldn’t be told. But we are on the op­po­site side of that. We just want the whole story to be told,” Hill said.


In this photo taken Thurs­day tourists Nancy Lange, left, and daugh­ter Teresa Lange read a me­mo­rial marker about old slave mar­kets in Mont­gomery, Ala. The same group that erected the marker is plan­ning a me­mo­rial and mu­seum to black lynch­ing vic­tims in the city long known as the first cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­acy.


In this photo taken Thurs­day in Mont­gomery, Ala., tourist Marlin Tay­lor looks at a me­mo­rial to peo­ple killed dur­ing the civil rights move­ment. The non­profit group Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive says it plans to build a mon­u­ment to the dead and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing mu­seum in Mont­gomery. It hopes to open both in 2017.

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