On April 26, the first memorial in the United States dedicated to the victims of “racial terror lynchings” was unveiled in Montgomery, Ala. Originating with the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative, which set out to document this little-known history, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is composed of 800 steel blocks, symbols of the 800 counties where more than 4,000 African Americans were terrorized and killed in the years between 1877 and 1950.
In addition to this memorial, the initiative has also created a “Legacy Museum” designed to show the long history of racial inequality and injustice from the time of the antebellum slave trade through the more recent era of black mass incarceration. Together these sites offer a dramatic response to the whitewashed history that has dominated the American landscape, challenging the narrative presented and preserved by the thousands of Confederate monuments and memorials that have given nostalgic cover to a history of racial brutality.
But more than a testament to the violence of lynching, the memorial forces visitors to reckon with the way the U.S. government tacitly approved of such violence for decades. More than tacitly: The memorial exposes how both Southern and Northern politicians used nostalgia and false history to preserve the system of white supremacy that stood at the core of their political power.
Nowhere is this clearer than the fight over anti-lynching laws. On numerous occasions from the end of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, civil rights workers like Ida B. Wells and activists in the NAACP pushed federal lawmakers to act against lynching. In the 1920s, the NAACP focused its efforts on the first federal anti-lynching law, the Dyer bill, which called for federal prosecution of those responsible for lynchings and compensation for lynching victims. Thanks to NAACP efforts, the House of Representatives passed the Dyer bill — which then became the first in a string of anti-lynching laws to die in the Senate, filibustered by Southern Democrats.
A blatantly false retelling of the American past helped filibustering lawmakers justify their opposition to this legislation. It undergirded their fight against another measure, the Costigan-Wagner bill, that twice went down to defeat during the 1930s in the Senate. Repeatedly, Senate opponents explained their hostility by reminding listeners of the purported horrors of Reconstruction.
The false historical narrative they put forth went something like this: In the years after the Civil War, the federal government, having assumed the bad intentions and rebellious spirit of white Southerners, had come to the aid of “negroes” with disastrous results. The story of vengeful carpetbaggers, working in concert with ignorant and sometimes malicious blacks, squelching the honest efforts of Southern whites to rebuild after the Civil War, was, by the 1930s, one of the most hardened myths about the American past.
It was the story enshrined in countless textbooks and in movies like “Birth of a Nation.” But it proved especially powerful in the hands of politicians seeking to defeat anti-lynching laws.
During a 1938 debate over the anti-lynching proposal, Sen. “Cotton Ed” Smith, a notorious white supremacist representing South Carolina, recalled the “strife and contention that ran rife during that dark period subsequent to the war known as the period of reconstruction.” He denounced the Costigan-Wagner bill as “an effort to bring in the very identical same element, reopening the chasm that once divided the Confederate States from the other States for the sole purpose of getting the vote of a certain race.”
Newspaper writers and editorialists contributed to the historical fabrication that shored up the political debate. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia argued against the law by drawing on a Washington Post editorial that claimed lynching “became a serious problem in the South largely because of the stupid ‘reconstruction’ policies foisted upon that section following the Civil War. Carpetbaggers imposed a reign of terror on the South.” The new legislation, The Post insisted, “would permit the Federal Government to invade the rights of the States” presumably in a way that would only further incite racial antagonism.
Nor was this view confined to representatives of the South or conservatives. Sen. William Borah of Idaho sounded the same tropes as Russell and Smith. As a Western Republican who decried federal overreach, Borah, like some others in his cohort, seized on the “states’ rights” principles of this doctored Reconstruction narrative. His commitment to Anglo-Saxonism also encouraged his support for Jim Crow laws that restricted black civil and political rights.
Scholars have now largely destroyed this myth about Reconstruction, highlighting the democratic initiatives unleashed by black representatives and their white allies with respect to public education, access to voting and political organizing. They have also documented the violent and anti-democratic practices of white Southerners who set out to undermine the Reconstruction governments.
But in the 1930s, the myth of Reconstruction not only misrepresented the facts about the past, it also served a political purpose for Southern Democrats (and some Republicans) and allowed an abominable crime to be perpetuated with impunity. Moreover, the words used by senators in 1938 gained even greater currency in the American imagination when, one year later, some of those very same myths found an outlet in Hollywood’s most lavish movie of the decade.
In its own way, “Gone with the Wind” repeated the story about carpetbagger misrule and black insubordination during the Reconstruction era, directing viewers to sympathize with Southern white “victims” like Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes. Even in its Hollywood form, the story had political consequences. “Whatever sentiment there was in the South for a federal anti-lynch law,” NAACP leader Walter White supposedly said, “evaporated during the ‘Gone with the Wind’ vogue.”
As long as Americans remained enamored with a “Gone with the Wind” version of history, the real history of racial brutality, including any awareness of the true extent of racial terror lynchings, will be buried beneath a myth about the “shackles of Reconstruction.” The Peace and Justice Memorial and the accompanying museum seek to advance a more honest historical record.
In its own way, the memorial hopes that those who falsified the historical record and abetted the terror will acknowledge their responsibility. Aside from the 800 steel monuments at the center of the memorial, the memorial site features an additional 800 monuments, each waiting for county officials to either install them at the sites of these brutal crimes, or leave them in Montgomery as a testament to their unwillingness to act.