Does America best move forward by nodding at the past, and focusing all other energy on moving forward? Or is it best—as African American culture’s Sankofa principle says—to study, understand and acknowledge one’s past in order to know how to move forward into the future? Of course, there are others who staunchly stand on the ground that moving backwards to the stage at which whites were firmly large and in charge and using that basis for all future endeavors is the way to go. These latter are the conservatives—going backwards is the best way forward.
To help answer that original question, Attorney Bryan Stevenson, a successful civil rights legalist, author and the current director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, has engineered the construction of two new museums in Montgomery, Alabama—the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum (the National Museum of Lynching). Both are due to open in April, 2018. It is Mr. Stevenson’s view that, “most of the issues we are struggling with today are a function of our failure to understand our history and our past.” Terror lynching is part of that past.
According to Attorney Stevenson, “racial terror lynchings” were brutal acts of violence whose aim was racial domination and reminders of racial supremacy. In his museums, these acts are classified differently from regular public hangings, mob violence or criminally prosecutable hate crimes. Stevenson’s Justice Initiative crew documented 4084 terror lynchings in the U.S., mainly in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950. This is 800 more lynchings than recorded in previous accountings, starting with the research done by African American icon Ida B. Wells. Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana dominated the list of those states with the largest number of lynchings in America.
Saying that there is a direct historical line between slavery, lynching, segregation and mass incarceration in America, Mr. Stevenson postulated that it is important to “make the legacy of slavery visible in America,” and that honestly confronting this legacy was the only way for this country to learn from its past so it could change its future.
His two museums are meant to be uncomfortable, but necessary, remembrances and tourist attractions in Montgomery.
Mr. Stevenson pointed out that while there are hundreds, if not thousands, of statues honoring and remembering Confederate generals, battles and historical sites, there are almost none commemorating the “ numerous public spectacle lynchings and acts of racial domination attended and celebrated by entire white communities; lynchings that escalated into mass violence against entire African-American communities, and the more targeted lynchings of sharecroppers, ministers, and community leaders who resisted mistreatment.”
Unlike the broader perspective taken by the African American Museum in Washington, D.C., Mr. Stevenson’s museums in Montgomery will focus on the narrative of the sordid history of how African Americans survived the domestic terrorism of lynching that was imposed on them for so long, as they have continued into the American future. But we must not forget.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.