A Journey Into Past Injustice is Essential in Our Troubling Present

By Sharon Dunn, WMHS teacher

At an AMS conference in 2016, the Keynote Speaker was Bryan Stevenson, and as he spoke, I kept wondering: how had I not heard of him and his work sooner? The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) organization continually works to bring to the surface in a memorable and meaningful way one of the ugliest aspects of our shared American history, lynching, while constantly tackling a critical issue in our American present, an outstandingly high incarceration rate impacting African American males in particular, and African Americans in general. While I knew of and had taught about everything he discussed, what I experienced when listening to him went beyond that knowledge because he made it personal, tangible, felt.

This year, it feels more crucial than ever that our Secondary students share that feeling. They need to be given fact-based lessons that include and, at times even feature, tough and ugly content, so they can build their knowledge on an honest foundation. This will help them develop the skill sets and outlooks that are anchored in understanding and compassion, and are necessary for thriving in a globally interlinked world full of collective and individual strengths and challenges.

To help ensure this possibility—that constructive feelings can grow and destructive ones can be identified and countered—we sometimes have to take not just the main roads in Humanities, but also the side roads, journeying deeper into a place and a people. The stories of slavery, segregation, lynching and other forms of racial injustice are among those imperative journeys.

The assignment and essays accompanying this introduction reflect the responses students had to their dive into some stories of the past. Those stories were emotionally demanding to visit, but their lessons for humanity resonated.

In the United States, we cannot rest comfortably on one holiday, Dr. King’s birthday, nor can we honor only a “dream” of justice and human harmony. We must teach about and learn about injustice, and give voice to the humans who are silenced by it.

Read the assignment for these thoughtful essays.

Understanding the legacy of lynching

By Anisha C. ’18

What I have learned through the stories of lynching victims and their families has provided me with more of an inside pathway to comprehend and care about the historical fact that lynching took place in the United States by connecting that fact with specific people and stories.

Statistics on lynching, such as that over 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877-1950 in the United States” are disturbing, but they are also impersonal, hard to feel a connection to. Turning even one of those numbers into a person, however, produces a much stronger emotional response. The stories that were most powerful of those on the website of the Equal Justice Initiative, the ones that almost made me cry, were that of the family in “Uprooted” trying to discover their path, and that of the teenage boy who had to feel and couldn’t see his family again for years.

The personal stories also cement facts and statistics into my mind by associating them with people. For example, the visual map of lynchings in different areas of the United States become much harder to forget once you realize that every single dot is another person’s story. More general facts are better absorbed as well: Through the brutal stories of injustice, you spot recurring patterns, such as how deeply lynchings were connected to hate, and how accepted they were.

Pretexts for lynchings were very frequently accusations of violence against white women, or even suggestions of a relationship with one, and even in one case where a woman said that the black man was innocent, the lynching proceeded. This makes it very clear how much lynching was an expression of hate, with any justification to release it sufficient. This is further confirmed by hearing about the excessive brutality and mutilations carried out in lynchings, including hundreds of bullets being fired and men being dismembered. The stories also made it disturbingly clear how accepted lynching was, to the point where there would be crowds of 10,000 people, advertisements in newspapers, and body parts sold as souvenirs.

This learning pathway of hearing stories also gave me a much better understanding of the effects of lynching, both short and long term. This was helped by the stories being told by family members of descendants, who describe how their grandparents never talked about what had happened, or about how their father didn’t realize how his children needed him because he’d lost his own father so early, or how a family was forced to leave three different states because of racial violence. These stories illustrate how the trauma felt in one generation can be carried on to others.

That awareness is crucial to understanding current issues, such s why Confederate symbols and memorials are so controversial and upsetting, despite relating to a far-away time. This impact was well illustrated by one of the women in the EJI “Listen” segments, Vanessa Croft, who describes how oppressive it felt as a teenage when at a simple football game, a rival school waved Confederate flags and sang Confederate anthems to a wildly cheering crowd. These stories also gave me an understanding of another reason why Confederate statues are so offensive: the legacy of racism is celebrated, rather than its victims being memorialized, as there are essentially no markers for people who have been lynched.

I also much better understand the legacy of inequality left by lynching. This includes white descendants of lynchers still able to profit from property seized from their victims, while the families who had to flee lost everything and had to start over. In addition, I can now clearly see how the criminal justice system and capital punishment can be a legacy of lynching, as a more modern and legalized expression of racial hate.

Hearing and learning about all of these stories helps make that period of history personal, which provides an inside pathway for caring about what happened, and so better remembering facts and statistics. It also helps with understanding why the repercussions of that era are still felt today and how current issues connect to it. For these reasons, I believe the learning pathway is one that should be included in a curriculum in American history. Even in an abbreviated version, where students only watch “Uprooted” and listen to a couple of their stories, including the first-hand account of the man who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, would be very useful. Not only would it help students remember an important part of recent history, but it would also give them a better understanding and perspective for issues happening today. By creating that personal connection to families, it can help prevent students from holding onto racist views, and also help African American students feel that their history is truly respected.

Rediscovering a family’s past

By Nancy W. ’19

The EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) project interviews African-Americans about their family history and collects information about lynchings, while along a different path to make difficult history come alive, beginning in 2010, Joseph McGill Jr. started to visit and sleep in former slaves’ cabins. Both Joseph McGill and the organizers of EJI are trying to support a quest for a deeper “understanding of identity of heritage and family.” Slavery and lynching and racism are not only the history for one family or for African-Americans, but also for the nation.
For a lot of people whose ancestors survived slavery and/or lynching, and left for the North, none of their family members came back to the South for years, until the younger family members started looking for their heritage. An example of this is shown in the video Uprooted. Shirah Dedman’s great-grandfather, Thomas Miles Sr., was lynched in 1912 because he sent a message to a white woman. The white mob didn’t have evidence to accuse him, so they told Thomas to leave Louisiana. Thomas left but came back again, so he was hanged and shot. The rest of the family moved to California in 1912 and no one came back to the South for over 100 years. Shirah’s grandfather even changed the spelling of his last name to Myles, and changed his birth place and birth date, and her great-grandfather was not discussed in their family.

The Myles are not the only family that was separated by lynching. Tarabu Betseral Kirkland’s grandfather and his friend were accused for attacking a white woman. Their family was forced to leave Mississippi for East St. Louis, Illinois. Then, they left for Ohio because of the race riots in St. Louis, but they were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan in Ohio and left there. Meanwhile, his grandfather’s friend who came back to Mississippi was shot and hanged and burned. A thousand people from that town and 9,000 people from other places watched that lynching. Also, in the 1930s, a white mob claimed that Fred Croft pushed a white girl off the back porch, which was denied by the girl. Fortunately, Fred was informed and ran away that night.

There are a lot of stories that are similar to these. Between 1900 and 1920 and between 1950 and 1960 are two of the waves of pro-Confederate and pro-lynching. Raping or disturbing white women were usually the false accusations for black man and the “reason” for them to be lynched. More than 4000 African-Americans were lynched during 1870-1950, which didn’t only happen in the South and not only happened to black men. Elizabeth Laurence, a school teacher, was lynched in Alabama because she criticized white students who were throwing rocks at her.

As we can tell from the map by EJI, the deep South, such as Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, had the largest number of lynchings. In total, Mississippi had 654 lynchings, while Georgia and Louisiana had 590 and 549. Only 4 counties in Mississippi had never had a lynching. Phillips County in Arkansas had the most lynchings, 254 in total, while the county which had the second most lynchings was Lafourche Parish in Louisiana, which had 52. Nevertheless, there were still some lynchings that happened in the North and the West, such as in Oregon, California, and Minnesota. Blacks were killed by white mobs not only by hanging, but also by beating, shooting, and even burning. White mobs always announced the time for lynching, so people in the town or from other places would come and watch, and white mobs sometimes took souvenirs, such as bone ashes of the person they had killed. Lynchings were usually executed without any evidence, and black people were killed only because of their race.

Another type of injustice the EJI website brings out the case of Anthony Ray Hinton. He was arrested for three crimes that he didn’t do, but went to death row for 30 years. Although three ballistics experts proved that the bullets didn’t match the victim’s body, the attorney general refused to reexamine the bullets, which would only take him an hour, so Hinton had to stay in the death row for another 16 years. In 2002, a year that he was still in prison, his mom died without seeing him for the last time. He could only face the place where they used to live, which was infested with mold when he was eventually released. He said that nothing has changed from the lynching days. “Two men came and got me, falsely accused me. It was a white mob that prosecuted me, a white judge that sentenced me, a white jury that convicted me.” He had stayed in jail for no reason but his skin color, and couldn’t meet his only family member until she died.

Besides the EJI producers, Joseph McGill Jr. is also trying to probe the history of African Americans, specifically by dealing with slavery and protecting former slave cabins. As he mentions, “If we lose slave dwellings, it’s that much easier to forget the slaves themselves.” He also summons members of his “re-enacting unit” to sleep in slave cabins overnight. Terry James, one of his members, said he himself “needed to know more about what they (his ancestors) endured and overcame.” More people started to experience sleeping in slave cabins in response to McGill’s advertisement and know more about the history of slavery. He also gives talks in museums and takes students to visit slave cabins.

Journeys for African-Americans to go back to their original hometown or to sleep in slave cabins provide them a chance to learn more about the family history and culture and heritage, and pacify their ancestors and especially themselves when they see where they used to live and the memorials for lynchings and slavery. For people whose ancestors hadn’t experienced these, this is also an opportunity for them to get involved in the history that they don’t know very well and which is usually neglected.

Never forget, never repeat

By May H. ’18

Slavery and lynchings are major issues in America’s past. It’s important that these topics are discussed and explored in American history curriculums so that these monstrosities are never forgotten nor repeated.

As a unique way to experience the pain of their general ancestors, African Americans Joseph McGill Jr. and his colleague, Terry James, made it their goal to explore and spend a night in every former slave dwelling in America. A Smithsonian magazine article about this says that McGill, “embraces the discomfort, both physical and psychological, because he wants to save slave dwellings and the history they hold before it’s too late.” Slave dwellings have disappeared and the remembrance of the horrors of slavery has started to fade with them. A related historical horror that has faded from the general populations’ mind is the horror of lynching. Hearing stories of lynching and the migration of many African Americans from the South to the North and West due to racial issues has provided me with an inside pathway into the difficulties African Americans have faced during times in history.

While many American history curriculum textbooks have a section on lynching, it’s a tiny little section inside a massive book of information, meaning it’s easily lost in the vast pages of the book. These books therefore don’t carry inside them the story of lynching that many African American families carry around with them everywhere they go. Given this fact, to learn more about lynching in America, students need to look into other sources such as the Equal Justice Initiative website. Here students can unravel the abandoned personal stories behind lynching in America.

Take Thomas William Miles Sr., the subject of one of the first stories a person finds when entering the site. Miles was lynched in 1912 at Shreveport, Louisiana for passing a note to a white woman, which at that time was enough to get an African American killed. He was accused of writing insulting letters to a white woman and was hauled off to jail, but was absolved because there was no actual evidence against him. As he was walking out of the backdoor of the jail, since he wasn’t allowed to use the front door, a mob was waiting for him and he was lynched and shot. His wife fled with their six year old son to California where she had to learn to be a single black mom in a time where there was major racial segregation and women had low paying jobs. This is just one story of the many on lynching. Other black men’s and women’s lynchings tore up families. The lynched didn’t see their children grow up, and what happened to them forced their other family members on the run simply because of some small claimed grievance. This destroying of families should always be remembered as a lesson, so this annihilation of life for no cause will never be repeated.

Other small, insignificant alleged actions made African Americans pay in unjustified ways. John Hartfield was lynched in 1919 in Ellisville, Mississippi. First, he was shot for supposedly assaulting a white woman, which at this time could mean that he accidently touched her. After being shot, the white mob took Hartfield to a hospital where he was kept alive as they advertised his lynching in the newspaper, like the circus was coming. The next day, he was hanged as members of the white society shot his hanging body.

Or take the recent case of Anthony Ray Hinton. He was charged with first degree murder and kidnapping, while insisting he didn’t do it. He was prosecuted by a white judge, had a white prosecutor, and an all-white jury and sent to death row, but eventually found innocent.

Another example is the story of Anthony Crawford from Abbeville, South Carolina. Crawford was lynched in 1916 from simply supposedly cursing when a white consumer paid less than average price for his cotton seed. The white citizens of Abbeville County decided that he was acting “uppity” and stabbed and beat him. Then he was hung, with the white onlookers shooting over 200 bullets at his dead body. When his family tried to retrieve his body, the white officials told them to leave it there, leaving Crawford without a burial, and all of this for saying one small word at not getting the proper payment for his hard earned work.

These are just a few stories on the horrific topic of lynching. These tales are stories held by hundred of African Americans trying to overcome the loss of family because of lynching. In Georgia there are 590 reported lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Arkansas has 492. Alabama has 361. Mississippi, the state of John Hartfield, has 654 deaths. The loss of life in unmistakable, and these are only the reported lynchings. There are probably hundreds of lynchings not included in these numbers.

These stories give the inside point of view on lynching. The families cry for the loss of their family members and America cries for the loss of its children. Lynching can’t become an undiscovered sea in American schools. So many American lives were lost, and it’s important for students to understand this topic to make sure that lynching never resurfaces in America or around the world. Knowledge is power. If American students have the knowledge of lynching, then they can use their power to stop the horrors of lynching from ever reemerging in modern day America.

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