For the many of us who are not born black— it is hard to imagine that centuries ago African Americans were brought to the United States as possessions for white farmers who needed “something” to tend to their fields.
It seems absurd that there were separate schools for white and black children, segregated bathrooms, segregated buses, and “segregated” choices based solely on one’s skin color. However, African Americans understand. They are the victims of racism and face workplace, educational, and police discrimination on a daily basis. Though this discrimination is more “civil” now, years ago it was unfortunately not.
Now, the Equal Justice Initiative wants to bring to light the horrific abuses that their ancestors endured in hopes of inspiring conversation around the racial injustices occurring today.
How Lynching Began
African American slaves were brought to the United States in the 1600s to work the cotton, rice, and indigo fields in the south. They played a big role in the overall economy of the southern region. Agricultural exports to Europe allowed for the south to have lots of economic power and thus political power in the United States.
Unfortunately, as the south became more reliant on slaves, the white slave owners passed stringent laws to make sure the slaves would always stay as possessions. It was only until the civil war began that African Americans became officially “emancipated.” However, southern people continued to view black people as “less” and believed they had greater racial superiority.
As years went on, African Americans continued demanding for more rights. But as a counter-reaction to these movements, the Ku Klux Klan formed: a group of white supremacists who aimed to hunt and kill black people. An activity called lynching became something white southern folks attended religiously all throughout the 1800s and 1900s where they brought snacks and lemonade and wore their best attire to watch black people hung or killed by mobs for random reasons. During this era, lynching grew rampant with little government oversight. And for years, people have chosen to erase from their memories lynching incidents.
National Memorial for Peace and Justice
The Equal Justice Initiative has finished construction of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a monument created in honor of lynching victims. The monument is located in Montgomery, Alabama, a city known for its prominence in the civil rights movement, and of course, its participation in the slave trade.
The founder, Bryan Stevenson, got the idea after noticing innate discrimination in law enforcement towards black people. In one case, Stevenson was particularly offended by the jailing of Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent man who was convicted by an all-white jury and sent to death row. This incident grew Stevenson’s desire to spread awareness towards racism and he began to pursue the building of the monument.
The monument contains multiple columns hanging from a ceiling. Each column will be engraved with the names of victims, and a description of why they were lynched. Some examples include Park Banks, a man killed for having a picture of a white woman, and others include those who accidentally bumped into white women, or failed to call a police officer “mister”.
All of this is to remind visitors of the treacherous and unnecessary acts long ago committed towards African Americans. Additionally, surrounding the monument are replicas of it, each representing a county where lynching occurred. The hope is that one day all of them will be gone and taken by their respective counties - this would symbolize the unity and dedication that the counties share in recognizing these heinous crimes.
Sources: NYTimes, Slate, EJI.org, Newyorker, Guardian