In the Bible Belt, Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row

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When it comes to the death penalty, guilt or innocence shouldn’t really matter to Christians.  

NASHVILLE — Until August, Tennessee had not put a prisoner to death in nearly a decade. Last Thursday, it performed its third execution in four months.
This was not a surprising turn of events. In each case, recourse to the courts had been exhausted. In each case Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, declined to intervene, though there were many r…

So the South’s White Terror Will Never Be Forgotten

White men and boys pose beneath the body of Lige Daniels shortly after he was lynched on August 3, 1920, in Center, Texas. Equal Justice Initiative.
The carnivals of death where African-American men, women and children were hanged, burned and dismembered as cheering crowds of whites looked on were the cornerstone of white supremacist rule in the Jim Crow-era South. These bloody spectacles terrified black communities into submission and showed whites that there would be no price to pay for murdering black people who asserted the right to vote, competed with whites in business — or so much as brushed against a white person on the sidewalk.

The lynching belt states looked away from this history, even as they developed now-popular tourism programs that attract visitors to churches, schools, courthouses and other landmarks associated with the civil rights movement. The long-neglected chapter of this story becomes breathtakingly visible on Thursday in Montgomery, Ala., where the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative will inaugurate two institutions focused on racial-terror lynching as the practice manifested itself between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.

The Legacy Museum, which is not far from the place where enslaved African-Americans entered Alabama’s capital city in chains, frankly explores how lynch mobs sought to preserve slavery and how the contempt for black life exemplified by extralegal hangings took new forms, like the death penalty and mass incarceration.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice — a sprawling six-acre site overlooking Montgomery — represents America’s first major effort to confront the vast scope of the racial-terror lynchings that ravaged the African-American community in the South. The memorial bears the names of more than 4,400 African-Americans who were victims of terror killings during this period — inscribed on more than 800 steel pillars that also bear the names of the counties where the lynchings occurred. A duplicate set of pillars has been made available to counties that wish to own up to their histories by commemorating the lynching dead within their borders.

Among the dead remembered at the memorial is Frazier Baker, a family man and teacher who was targeted for lynching when the McKinley administration named him postmaster of the majority-white community of Lake City, S.C., in 1897. Whites who were angered by the elevation of a black person petitioned the government for his removal, tried to assassinate him and eventually burned the Lake City post office to the ground.

The memorial bears the names of African-Americans in more than 800 counties who were victims of lynchings and other terror killings.Refusing to give up the job, Baker moved the post office into his home. During the early-morning hours of Feb. 22, 1898, a mob set fire to the Baker home and fired a hail of bullets as the family tried to flee. Baker and his infant daughter, Julia, were killed. His wife was wounded and would no doubt have died had neighbors not pulled her away from the flames. The case conformed to an established pattern when a jury failed to convict those charged with the crime.

The memorial is the culmination of an effort that began nearly a decade ago, when the institute, led by the civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, began combing the historical record to try to gauge the full scope of the racial-terror killings that took place between 1877 and 1950. Strikingly, the institute turned up 800 more lynchings than had been reported in the 12 Southern states it examined. The researchers also documented 300 lynchings in other states during this time period.

Different groups of African-Americans were targeted for what mobs referred to as “lynching bees” and “Negro barbecues” during different periods. Between 1915 and 1940, those selected for killing commonly included sharecroppers, ministers and community leaders who resisted mistreatment or agitated for equal rights.

The institute also learned that people who had attended lynchings as children were still alive. After the first report appeared in 2015, a Florida man called to report that his grandfather had taken him to a lynching when he was 6 years old. Another caller reported that two uncles had been among the 500 people who attended the lynching of Commodore Jones, hanged in 1911 in Farmersville, Tex., on the charge of insulting a white person.

Despite countless horrors like these, Southerners in the United States Senate repeatedly prevented Congress from declaring lynching a federal crime. In 2005, the Senate finally apologized to the descendants of victims for failing to act while the reign of racial terror swept the South.

The new museum and memorial in Montgomery are necessary first stops for a civil rights tour of the South. They vividly illustrate the terrorism that enforced the Jim Crow regime into the mid-20th century. Beyond that, they show that the devaluation of black life upon which slavery relied did not just evaporate, but haunts the country still.

Source: The New York Times, Opinion, Brent Staples, April 25, 2018Mr. Staples is a member of the editorial board.

A Lynching Memorial Is Opening. The Country Has Never Seen Anything Like It.

 National Memorial for Peace and Justice
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening Thursday in Montgomery, Ala., is dedicated to victims of white supremacy.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In a plain brown building sits an office run by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, a place for people who have been held accountable for their crimes and duly expressed remorse.

Just a few yards up the street lies a different kind of rehabilitation center, for a country that has not been held to nearly the same standard.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opens Thursday on a six-acre site overlooking the Alabama State Capitol, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy. And it demands a reckoning with one of the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror.

At the center is a grim cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.

The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk: Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.

There is nothing like it in the country. Which is the point.

“Just seeing the names of all these people,” said Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization behind the memorial. Many of them, he said, “have never been named in public.”

Mr. Stevenson and a small group of lawyers spent years immersing themselves in archives and county libraries to document the thousands of racial terror lynchings across the South. They have cataloged nearly 4,400 in total.

Inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Mr. Stevenson decided that a single memorial was the most powerful way to give a sense of the scale of the bloodshed. But also at the site are duplicates of each steel column, lined up in rows like coffins, intended to be disseminated around the country to the counties where lynchings were carried out. People in these counties can request them — dozens of such requests have already been made — but they must show that they have made efforts locally to “address racial and economic injustice.”

For Mr. Stevenson, the plans for the memorial and an accompanying museum were rooted in decades spent in Alabama courtrooms, witnessing a criminal justice system that treats African-Americans with particular cruelty, or indifference.

Since 1989, the Equal Justice Initiative has offered legal services to poor people in prison, toiling away in a city awash in Confederate commemorations (Monday was Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama), in a state with the nation’s highest per capita death sentencing rate. Nearly every staff member is a lawyer with clients in the prison system, and they have continued to work a full schedule of legal defense work even as they painstakingly compiled the names of the lynched and planned the memorial.

Mr. Stevenson, whose great-grandparents were slaves in Virginia, has written about “just mercy,” the belief that those who have committed serious wrongs should be allowed a chance at redemption. It is a conviction he has spent a career arguing for on behalf of clients, and he believes it is true even for the white America whose brutality is chronicled by the memorial.

“If I believe that each of us is more than the worst thing he’s ever done,” he said, “I have to believe that for everybody.”

But the history has to be acknowledged and its destructive legacy faced, he said. And this is particularly hard in “the most punitive society on the planet.”

People do not want to admit wrongdoing in America, Mr. Stevenson said, because they expect only punishment.
“I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America,” Mr. Stevenson continued. “I want to liberate America. And I think it’s important for us to do this as an organization that has created an identity that is as disassociated from punishment as possible.”

The initiative’s headquarters are a few blocks away in a building that was once a warehouse in Montgomery’s sprawling slave market. It is now the site of the Legacy Museum, a companion piece to the memorial.

 National Memorial for Peace and Justice
It is not a conventional museum, heavy on artifacts and detached commentary. It is perhaps better described as the presentation of an argument, supported by firsthand accounts and contemporary documents, that the slavery system did not end but evolved: from the family-shattering domestic slave trade to the decades of lynching terror, to the suffocating segregation of Jim Crow to the age of mass incarceration in which we now live.

The museum ends with a nod toward the future. By the exit is a section with a voter registration kiosk, information on volunteer opportunities and suggestions on how to discuss all of this with students. Given what has come before, it seems a jarring expression of confidence in the possibility of change. But there are good reasons for it.

Among the accounts given at the museum is that of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 28 years on Alabama’s death row after being wrongly convicted of two murders by an all-white jury. The case for his innocence seemed straightforward, but lawyers at the Equal Justice Initiative spent 16 years working for his freedom, appealing the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Hinton knows firsthand how stubborn injustice can be, but he is blunt: If people just gave up in despair, he would be dead.

“I refuse to believe that it’s hopeless because I am a product of what can happen when you fight,” he said. “If we don’t fight, who’s going to fight?”

A grassy hillock rises in the middle of the memorial. From here you can see the Montgomery skyline through the thicket of hanging columns, the river where the enslaved were sold and the State Capitol building that once housed the Confederacy, whose monuments the current Alabama governor has vowed to protect. It is a striking view. But Mr. Stevenson pointed out that when standing here, you are on view as well, faced on all sides by the names of the thousands who were run down, instantly judged and viciously put to death.

“You might feel judged yourself,” he said. “What are you going to do?”

Source: The New York Times, Campbell Robertson, April 25, 2018

Related content: Visit Equal Justice Initiative's page on Facebook

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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