The Legacy of Lynching and EJI’s Historical Work

I traveled to New York in September to see the Equal Justice Initiative’s exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America. As Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of EJI, explains, “there’s very few places in this country where you can go and have an honest experience with the history of slavery. There’s no places you can go and have an honest experience with the history of lynching.” The exhibit was originally scheduled to run through September 3 but was extended through October 8, presumably due to public interest and popular demand. As demonstrated by the consistently sold-out Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., America has an appetite for these untold histories. The Legacy of Lynching exhibit closed a week ago, but the historical work of EJI is going strong (with two museums scheduled to open next year) — this exhibit made it clear how effective and important that work is.

Legacy of Lynching had a clear goal, laid out by then James Baldwin quote with a whole wall to itself at the entrance: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Then, a few steps further, visitors encountered an even clearer mission statement from Langston Hughes: “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath — America will be!” This exhibit brought together EJI’s work and research around racial terror lynching with the holdings of the Brooklyn Museum, ending with a discussion of The Memorial to Peace and Justice, a memorial to those murdered by lynching that EJI plans to open in Montgomery, Alabama in 2018. The Brooklyn Museum has a legacy for more progressive work than many traditional “great museums” and they consciously embraced that here, emphasizing on the introductory panel a belief that “great art and courageous conversations contribute to a more just, civic, and empathetic world.” With these stated goals, the exhibit worked to make visitors confront and reckon with a brutal past. But brutality, sorrow, and pain were never intended to be the takeaways here. Instead, the whole exhibit resonates with a deep humanity, the kind of determined building of empathy that both assumes and brings out the best of museum audiences.

In addition to their legal advocacy work, EJI has undertaken large-scale historical research to investigate the structures that have created and codified American white supremacy and its most significant current incarnation: mass incarceration. In June 2017, they released a report that documented 4,084 racial terror lynchings, at least 800 more cases than documented elsewhere. As stated in the introduction to that report, “Avoiding honest conversation about this history has undermined our ability to be a nation where racial justice can be achieved.” Unlike academic historians who place great value on their efforts to be neutral, this historical research has a mission statement. EJI wants Americans to confront and reckon with this brutal past so that we can build a better future, better than the current one where we gloss over the rough parts of our history in a way that allows white supremacy to keep its power. Activists engaging in the telling of history challenge the field’s supposed objectivity, but it is impossible to tell the story of your country’s past without feeling some stake in it. EJI grounds their historical work in excellent research, presenting facts with clear evidence behind them, and using those facts to help us better understand systematic racism in our present. In 2018, they will further this historical work through two institutions in their home town of Montgomery, Alabama: a museum dedicated to African American history From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and The Memorial to Peace and Justice, dedicated to the victims of racial terror lynchings. As a centerpiece of the Legacy of Lynching Exhibit sat a massive touchscreen with a map of America showing EJI’s research. Every country with a documented lynching was highlighted. Visitors could move around on the map, zoom in, select a county. And in each county, you could read a specific story. This exhibit was designed to show immediately that it is both about the massive, systemic forces at work and about the personal stories and lives that these systems were designed to devalue.

EJI and the Brooklyn Museum wasted no time in stating hard truths, truths known by African American communities and discussed by many activists, academics, and writers, but truths that have not yet made their way into American textbooks. Like the truth that lynching was terrorism, a calculated campaign of fear to perpetuate white supremacy on a massive scale. The truth that challenges a common narrative of the Great Migration, that of black families seeking economic options. Here, interpretive panels and the stories of survivors made it very clear — African Americans left the south as refugees from racist violence. Some left lives behind and ran in the middle of the night, like the Lang family in Ellisville, Mississippi or Fred Croft from East Gadsden, Alabama. Some returned, like Lang family friend John Hartfield who was murdered in Ellisville before a crowd of ten thousand; men, women, and children who flooded the small town after the lynching was announced in a newspaper, eager to partake in torture and execution. These stories were among those told on panels that took visitors and through slide shows with voice-overs scattered throughout the exhibit space.

In addition to confronting hard truths, The Legacy of Lynching was just a really well-designed exhibit. The quotations from famous black writers and thinkers on the walls helped to ground and direct the thoughts of visitors. The touch-screen map gave viewers a sense of the massive scale, while the slideshows with voiceover immediately made this history personal. The format of those slideshow presentations was very well chosen — they leave the impression of a video, but the slide-show and narrative structure allowed them to be much more concise than a video would be, emotionally effective without feeling exploitative of the subjects. The exhibit ended with Uprooted, a short documentary showing the family of Thomas Miles, Sr. travelling to the place where he was lynched in Shreveport, Alabama and collecting soil for The Memorial to Peace and Justice. Here, the video format allowed for more space and silence, allowing visitors to sit with a family trying to reckon with an unbelievably cruel past. While the slideshows were effectively concise narratives, the video is more open and allows more space for emotions to build. This video is where I broke down and cried. So did many of the people around me. The grief and strength of the Dedman/Myles family leaves the visitor in a contemplative, empathetic space, ensuring the messages of this exhibit stayed with those who came through.

Dispersed throughout these historical testimonies are works of art by African American artists, the part of the exhibit from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection. This art, by artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, Sanford Biggers, Titus Kaphar, Theaster Gates, Dread Scott, and more, moves the pain and trauma of lynching into our present. It shows how African American artists have dealt with and expressed that pain. The contributions vary, from photographs of a performance piece walking against a fire house (Dread Scott) to Kara Walker’s steel silhouette tableau Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching, each telling a different story from a different specific time and place in American history. These pieces remind viewers of the continuing presence of this racial violence and makes those lines clear — from slavery to lynching to brutal treatment of Civil Rights activists to the current mass incarceration of black men and women. Because they are more varied in timeframe and approach, the artistic contributions did not punch quite as hard as the historical narratives and recordings of personal oral histories that formed the heart of the exhibit. But they added an essential element, moving the conversation from historical facts to a place of current emotion and response, helping to center that emotional truth and making that survival and expression the true story of this exhibit.

In archives, museums, and private collections, thousands of photographs of lynchings document the exact tortures done to thousands of bodies. These images lay brutality bare — there is no escaping the horrific things that white Americans did to black Americans, nor the pride and safety they must have felt in order to photograph and preserve evidence of those acts (complete with smiling children dressed in their Sunday best). But many historians and activists now debate the use of these photographs. These images can be used to stir empathy, especially among white viewers who may be unaware of this history. Shock can be useful in opening minds and changing perspectives. But, too often, black suffering is presented to white people in an effort to make them kinder or more aware without really challenging oppressive systems, without pushing white viewers to fully see the humanity of those who they too often see as a nameless suffering mass. The story of African Americans is not just a tale of suffering and of death, not just a tale to stir up sympathy among those who have not been not so oppressed. But, from early abolition movements through today, black suffering is commodified and presented over and over and over again to, hopefully, shock white America into some sort of action. These endless catalogues of suffering can backfire through numbing viewers to the realities of individual lives lost, or through over-emphasizing the violence in a way that is titillating and scandalizing but does not call people to meaningful action. This exhibit carefully works against that narrative. There are no lynching photographs. There are no maimed bodies and no stories without names and voices. Instead of focusing on the physical act of lynching, this exhibit focuses on the humanity of those whose lives were taken and whose lives were changed by this violence. Scattered throughout the exhibit are the small rooms that show personal narratives of families who fled lynching, who lost someone to lynching, who survived attempts. We hear their stories in their own voices. We do not focus on the physical suffering and the catalog of horrors, but on how the fact of that violence shaped lives.

The most striking thing about this exhibit was the optimism, the sense of hope. Stevenson approaches this look at some of America’s worst history as a necessary project for growth. In the video that greeted all visitors, he talks with contagious passion about the possibility for a better America if, and only if, we truly reckon with our brutal past. This is not an exhibit to catalog sufferings. This is an exhibit of humanity, of love and resilience and change and terror and sadness and every real and deep human feeling. It is a profound exercise in storytelling and in empathy. And, if you look at the work of Stevenson and EJI, nothing less could be expected. Stevenson’s bestselling book Just Mercy is the story of the humanity he sees in every marginalized, abused, neglected, and condemned person he meets. He sees these other people that most of us don’t have time and space for, that we ignore because they are conveniently out of sight. He meets them where they are and he sees everything that is real and human in them. He does not present this as conscious work. It just is. It is just how he moves through the world. There is no question in his mind about the value of this work, the value of these lives. It is not ever about worthiness. Yes, Stevenson tries to build arguments for why people are worthy of redemption because he is a lawyer and those arguments are powerful ammunition in court cases. But it doesn’t seem like he cares about worthiness in a traditional sense. These are humans. They deserve human treatment. That’s it. So of course Stevenson and EJI would approach the horrors of lynching with the same simple empathy. Simple, but not easy — it is both powerful and radical. They do not dwell on the suffering suffering of bodies. They care about the suffering of souls. There are no lists of torture here. The lives devastated by these losses are here. The work of artists processing this pain is here. These voices and stories are here. The pain is here, but the pain is not all that this exhibit is about.

After absorbing the horror of these murders, the torture, and the lives destroyed, it is hard to see how this country can be saved or if, in fact, it is worth saving. Stevenson and EJI never lose sight of a way forward. They explicitly present this history in order to help America get better, to bring the truth into the light so that we can reckon with it fully. As Stevenson states, “We all live in communities where the evidence of this history of exclusion and bigotry and discrimination can still be seen. And our silence about the evidence of that history is what allows it to continue.” EJI cannot resurrect the people murdered in these racist acts of violence. But they try like hell. And they get closer than anyone else I’ve seen. Not even in detailing specific lives, but in making visitors really feel for these lives with everything they have. That level of empathy requires recognition of other full lives, other full humans. It requires seeing them across racial, social, temporal divides. EJI and Stevenson work tirelessly and stubbornly for a better word against indescribable odds, carrying pain with them that would swamp so many other people. But when you absorb how they see the world, you start to understand that they couldn’t do anything else. They are not choosing hope or humanity. Humanity is everything. Absorbing the humanity around you endlessly multiplies your capacity for feeling everything. Pain, suffering, sorrow, love, joy, and hope. That last one seems the most stubborn. As Stevenson explains in Just Mercy, that kind of hope is essential to the work EJI does. Not a vague sense that things might get better, not a general optimism. But a deep, stubborn, determined hope — “That kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.”

(Find out more about EJI, and support their work, at eji.org)

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