Nothing casts as long and shameful a shadow on our history than does lynching. Lynching is a part of America’s history that we want to ignore. As a people, we cringe at the thought of it, yet do not often allow ourselves to think of it. We do not own lynching. It happened in another time in history, with decades separating us from its shame. We secretly hope that if we do not talk about it, we can move forward without acknowleding the depth of its impact. And above all, we cannot admit that such violence is still possible in this day.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a living reminder for us. The Memorial, which opened today on a six-acre site overlooking the Alabama State Capitol, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy. It demands a reckoning with one of the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror.
At the center of the Memorial is a grim cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.
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:
Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman;
Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”;
Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.
A grassy hill rises in the middle of the memorial. From there you can see the Montgomery skyline through the thicket of hanging columns, the river where the enslaved were sold, and the State Capitol building that once housed the Confederacy. It is a striking view.
The striking exhibits and sculptures in this Memorial exist to remind us, to challenge us, to create in us a determination to always fight injustice.
May we more deeply understand our tragically unjust and violent history. May we vow to make peace and demand justice. May we never forget what happened in this nation so that it will never happen again. It is very real that our history of lynching innocent people casts a long and dark shadow upon our existence. May we intentionally work for justice so that we will no longer live in that shadow.
This blog post is words, just words. But our words are not enough. Our declarations are empty and meaningless if we do not also immerse ourselves in the hard and grueling work that makes for justice. God does not care about our words and promises. God does not accept our carefully planned events — filled with flags and crowds and songs — held in American cities and counties and town squares to commemorate our history. God demands pure and genuine righteousness that vows to do whatever it takes to create justice in our nation and in the world.
May God lead us in making it so. May God help us to step out of lynching’s long shadow and walk in the light of justice and righteousness.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
— Amos 5:23-24 (New Revised Standard Version)