This past Thursday, the long anticipated National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. Visually stunning and emotionally provocative, the memorial has received accolades for its architecture and messaging. Thousands attended its opening with dignitaries proclaiming its relevance. While I share these sentiments, I am disturbed that unless you’ve been paying attention, you probably have no idea what the National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates.
Ironically, its ambiguous title perfectly illustrates one of a deep moral failings in American society – our inability to honestly address the history of lynching in the United States. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was built to memorialize – by name – the 4400+ people of color who were publicly lynched by white people between 1877 and 1981. It is intended to draw attention to the socially sanctioned practice of periodically lynching a person of color as an act of terror. It exposes lynching for what it was – a communal event whereby white families enculturated white supremacy into their children and black families were taught what they could expect if they challenged the status quo in any way.
Indeed, this omnipresent threat continues to inhibit people of color. They know better than to call the memorial what it is – “the Lynching Memorial.” In order to assuage the sensibilities of fragile white people, even the memorial to the victims of lynching must avoid the “L” word. It is a memorial to peace and justice, allowing white people to once again obscure a truth we cannot acknowledge. Lynching was not the aberrant behavior of a few white supremacists. Public lynching attracted thousands of white Americans and their families dressed in their Sunday best with a picnic basket. Lynching was as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. No wonder white people react so poorly to any reminder of this heinous history. Nothing threatens our nostalgic American mythology as much as the stories of a lynching.
Consider the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith on August 7th, 1930 in the town of Marion in my own state of Indiana. Shipp, Smith and a sixteen year old by the name of James Cameron had been arrested and jailed for the murder of a local white man, Claude Deeter. However, when Deeter’s girlfriend, Mary Ball, accused the men of raping her, (falsely as it turned out), all hell broke loose. Ten to fifteen thousand white men and women descended on the jail, broke down its doors with sledgehammers and brutally beat the three men. When Abram Smith resisted the noose, the crowd stabbed him repeatedly and broke both of his arms. While Cameron eventually escaped the crowd, Shipp and Smith were hung from a tree on the courthouse grounds while local police and officials looked on. Though photographic evidence identified many of the lynching perpetrators, not a single person was ever arrested or charged for the murder of the two men.
Sadly, this lynching mirrors countless others in the United States. The purpose of these acts had nothing to do with peace or justice. They were acts of intimidation and humiliation. It was not unusual for the bodies of the lynched persons to be mutilated, dismembered and burned. Sometimes the bodies were allowed to hang publicly for several days. On other occasions, the bodies were drug through the streets behind horses or cars and eventually left in the middle of the town’s black neighborhood. Lynchings were often accompanied by random acts of violence on other blacks and the destruction of black businesses and homes in race riots. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1960s that people of color gained the right to riot. For the first two hundred years of American history, race riots were always perpetrated by white mobs.
This is the reality that the National Memorial for Peace and Justice appropriately, but insufficiently, communicates through stone, wood and names. This is the reality that white people consistently deny, diminish or deflect. In Marion, Indiana, the town did not attempt to address their lynching until 2003, when a group of black and white pastors proposed the placing of a plaque memorializing the death of Shipp and Smith on the grounds of the courthouse. Unfortunately, the plaque was more designed to placate white people than to acknowledge past injustice. It read…
“As citizens of Marion, Grant County, Indiana, we acknowledge that hatred, violence and bigotry have scarred this community. We confess that this legacy touches all of us. We both seek and offer forgiveness. We commit ourselves to the pursuit of healing, unity and peace. We declare this day of reconciliation to be the first step toward a bright and prosperous future for the people of this community.”
There was no mention of Shipp and Smith. There was no mention of the “L” word. The plaque, oddly, suggested both white and black people needed to “seek and offer forgiveness.” Those who didn’t know of the plaque’s origins would have no idea it commemorated the murder of two black men by the white citizenry of the city of Marion. Yet this plaque was ultimately rejected by the city commissioners as being too divisive. The Commission President argued, “I personally believe this is the wrong time to put up a plaque.” She did not suggest when a good time might be.
Apparently, that time is still in the future. This past year, my friend, Phil Gulley spoke at an event in Grant County, Indiana. His remarks, as is his habit, included a call for racial reconciliation. Afterwards, in a small group discussion, he asked the group, which was made up entirely of white people, whether there was a memorial commemorating the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. After a prolonged silence, one person answered, “That was an unfortunate event we’d prefer to forget.”
Though no single sentence better describes the attitude of white Americans concerning our heinous history, the language around lynching is seldom accurate. It was not an unfortunate event. It was a carefully orchestrated act of racial terrorism supported by the vast majority of the white citizens of Marion, Indiana. That cannot and should not be forgotten. Acknowledgment is the first step toward a bright and prosperous future for the people of Marion, Indiana and of the United States of America. Let us hope the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is not seen as the end of a discussion, but as its beginning.