4,000, 801, 70, 24 and counting
September 20th, 2019
(published in the Daily Memphian)
Recognition is every bit as much a part of a bicentennial as celebration, the whole of history much more informative and instructive than the picking and choosing of the parts we like, honesty more genuinely healing than fantasy.
It’s time to revisit a past column, because it’s well past time to be honest about our numbers and their toll.
As people are being shot while shopping and praying and driving because of where they might or might not be from, or because of what they might or might not believe, or just because of what they look like, it serves us well to remember that we have plenty of history of homegrown terrorism. We didn’t import it from Syria or Mexico or the vilified country or religion of the month – not even from somewhere else in this country – it’s from right here, directed at fellow citizens, and as Southern as grits and as local as barbecue, and a lot more recent than we’d like to think.
About 4,000 people were lynched in the South between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, about 800 more than previously thought due to the research of the Equal Justice Initiative. The about part is significant since those kinds of statistics are more carefully hidden than proudly claimed. They were brutally murdered – many times before cheering crowds and reported in local newspapers – in 801 Southern counties, 70 of those counties in Tennessee, and of those, Shelby County was first with 18 lynchings according to The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. That sad number is at least 24 according to research by the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis and others.
I first wrote about this two years ago after reading two things that caused me to take a wide-eyed look at myself and where I live, and to see the danger in denial and the hope in honesty. One was a book, Just Mercy, by a Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, and the other was an article by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker about Stevenson and his work. Stevenson was honored by the National Civil Rights Museum in 2016 with the Freedom Award.
Since then, Stevenson and the EJI have opened the Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, a memorial to the 4,000 who died so horribly and have been so forgotten. Central to its design are 801 columns – one each for the lynching counties, each colored by soil from that county – that visitors see as they approach, and then note that each is hanging. There are 801 duplicate columns as well, and Stevenson’s vision is an invitation to each of the counties to come and claim their column and then display it at home.
Since then right here at home, the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis has launched a Duplicate Monuments Task Force to do just that, coordinating all the various entities that must come together to make it happen. They also continue their work to place monuments at the actual lynching sites in the county.
I’m repeating my earlier recommendation about where our duplicate column should go, on a perfect corner to remember what Billie Holiday called “Strange Fruit” in her haunting song, and perhaps be haunted no more.
I visited that corner when a group of people as diverse as the city gathered there in 2015 for an “Interfaith Prayer Service For Truth” asking that our whole history be told, that we share the pain of our past and the responsibility for our present and future so that healing can begin. They read the names of victims of lynching in Shelby County, and asked that they not simply be remembered but the sites marked, the truth noted. We all sang “Amazing Grace,” the redemptive hymn written by a slave ship captain turned Episcopal priest.
I visited the corner again in 2018 when a marker went up telling the whole history of what was once there; a slave market owned by Nathan Bedford Forrest. The new marker was sponsored by Calvary Episcopal Church, Rhodes College, and the National Park Service. The old state marker at the site simply notes that his home was there, and that “his business enterprises made him wealthy.”
The corner once had a statue of Columbus, since moved, but the platform remains, and waits. Directly across the street is the site of justice in Shelby County, the D’Army Bailey Courthouse.
Only the whole of history can warn us of what we’re truly capable of and truly inspire us to be better.
If we have the courage to, as Stevenson says, “confront the truth of our past” and simultaneously our present, we should applaud when our column stands at the corner of Adams and B.B. King, when the infamy of being first in lynchings in Tennessee can rest in peace.
I’m a Memphian, in whole and in part.
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