The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama places lynching of African-Americans in the proper context of U.S. history. As the U.S. commemorates Black History Month, it serves as a reminder that all Americans must shine a light on injustice.
Black History Month is often embraced as a celebration of African-American pioneers, trailblazers, activists and inventors who overcame dire odds and obstacles to accomplish great feats. Sometimes their stories become chapters that are easily inserted into American history books without reminding America of its sordid past – one marked with barbaric treatment of Black people that has left an indelible stain on the fabric of the American family.
Black history is replete with lynching – the practice of murder by a mob that administers punishment for an alleged offense without trial. The term is said to have derived from the name of Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter and politician who formed a makeshift band of vigilantes to punish loyalists during the American Revolution. But the practice was popularized in the South with senseless killings of African-Americans following the 1863 emancipation of slaves and continuing into the 21st century.
Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955 put a gruesome face on the barbaric practice – in part because his mother publicly displayed his savagely beaten, disfigured and decomposed body for the world to see – and it served as a precursor to the civil rights movement. But the 14-year-old boy was among thousands of African-Americans who comprise more than 70 percent of people lynched in the United States. Lynching ripped apart families and terrorized communities, taking the lives of men, women, children and the unborn. As their stories are scarcely told, most lynching victims have remained anonymous.
The Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, however, has brought their stories to life, in a painfully graphic, yet artfully constructed memorial in Montgomery, one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice not only places the lynching of African-Americans in the proper context of Black and American history, it serves as a reminder that, to echo sentiments of Mamie Till-Mobley, shining a light on injustice is something all Americans must do.
Marguerite Casey Foundation commemorates Black History Month by looking at the lynching memorial, as seen through the eyes of two Alabama activists.
Kimble Forrister is the former executive director of Alabama Arise, a nonpartisan coalition of organizations, congregations and individuals that helps low-income residents advocate for equitable and effective state policies.
This coming together to discuss race, equity and the memorial reflects the Foundation’s core values and longstanding, philanthropic commitment to families, social progress and dignity – especially in the U.S. South.
Through Marguerite Casey Foundation’s investments of multiyear, unrestricted grants and embrace of family-led movement building, it stands with communities in the South to create space for the poor, families of color and allies to elevate voices and views so gruesome acts, such as lynching, are remembered, taught and understood and that racism and discrimination are confronted.
This movement for positive social change can be seen at policy levels and at community meetings. And it is evident in a Foundation-coordinated conversation involving a Black man and White man who reflected on thousands of Americans who lost their lives merely because of their skin color.
Joe Burris is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s program officer for the South Region. Mike Kane is a Seattle-based freelance photographer and videographer. He shot and edited the video in collaboration with Burris. Kane’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Mother Jones and The Guardian. On Instagram, he is @kaneinane. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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