Justice  /  Museum Review

The Pain We Still Need to Feel

The new lynching memorial confronts the racial terrorism that corrupted America—and still does.
Human Pictures/Equal Justice Initiative

The central structure of the memorial is a looming cloister where 800 steel columns hang from the roof. On each column is a state, a county, and the names of everyone lynched there, along with the dates of their deaths. The columns start at eye level, but as you walk through the memorial, the floor descends and the structures hang like so many victims. You, the visitor, become a kind of witness to the ritualistic murders that claimed at least 4,000 black Americans between 1877 and 1950: from the collapse of Reconstruction to the beginning of the end of Jim Crow. The scale of that killing becomes clear in an adjacent room, where replicas of those hanging steel structures are placed like coffins on the ground, arranged in alphabetical order for visitors who want to find the one that marks their town or county.

For me, two markers mattered: Ware County, Georgia, and Gadsden County, Florida, where my mother and father are from, respectively. Four people were lynched in Ware and four people in Gadsden—the earliest in 1881, the latest in 1941. Walter Wilkins, killed on June 27, 1908, in Ware County’s seat of Waycross, had been accused of assaulting a young white girl. It is difficult, for me, to express the feeling of finding the columns that mark your origins—seeing the names of the victims and imagining the terror and fear that must have coursed through those communities. And thinking, too, that the most recent killings happened within living memory of people you knew, or who knew your parents and grandparents.

Racial hierarchy and inequality still exist today, but Jim Crow is gone and the public, socially sanctioned violence that defined the lynching era has largely disappeared. Which may lead some to ask why? Why dwell on this painful period of American history? Why fight to bring this unspeakable violence into the national consciousness? And why work to integrate it into public memory when lynching remains an incredibly fraught metaphor for racial conflict, with heavy symbolic baggage that weighs on any conversation around the subject?

The answer is straightforward. We live in a moment when racism—explicit and unapologetic—has returned to a prominent place in American politics, both endorsed by and propagated through the Oval Office. And in that environment, a memorial to racial terrorism—one which indicts perpetrators as much as it honors victims—is the kind of provocation that we need, a vital and powerful statement against our national tendency to willful amnesia.