I didn’t think a memorial about the horror of lynching could be beautiful. But that’s just what the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is.
Though I’m not sure it was done purposefully, it also gave off the sweet smell of tobacco, an aroma men who grew up in the South like I did can’t forget. The memorial panels that recount the more than 4,400 documented lynchings even evoke the color of tobacco going through its curing phase. It reminded me of the days I spent when I was a teenager picking leaves from the plant in mile-long rows for hours on end in a South Carolina heat that often hit triple digits.
My mother and father and aunts and uncles picked tobacco and cotton and other crops too—not as one in a series of summer jobs like me and my brothers and sisters did, but to fend off starvation and because just about every other option had been closed off to them. They were forced to be in fields my grandfather worked as a sharecropper instead of sitting in a desk at school until some of them headed north as part of a Great Migration that saw several million black people flee the South in the early and mid-20th century. It was the persistence of lynchings turned black people into refugees in their own country.
Before that, generations of my family were enslaved—we were able to track it on my mother’s side but not my father’s, who was an only child whose mother died during childbirth—in a system unlike any other in world history, one that began as a kind of indentured servitude but morphed into one based on the darkness of one’s skin. Those fields, those smells, they helped shape me, helped shape all of us.
That’s what I was thinking as I toured the memorial, and later the Legacy Museum, in downtown Montgomery, both of them the creation of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. The smell made me flash back. The sight of documented lynchings in areas near where I grew up initially made me angry, even though I began studying the issue years ago. Samuel Gaillard and George McFadden and Samuel Turner were lynched in Williamsburg, the county in South Carolina where my mother at the age of 13 was forced to marry a man two decades her senior. Bruce Tisdale was lynched in Georgetown, where I got married, where my wife’s family still lives.
“I think we should feel shattered and haunted by this history,” Stevenson said at a press conference after the tour.
I know I do.
There were other stories throughout the region, including one about a woman named Elizabeth Lawrence being lynched in 1933 Birmingham after reprimanding white children who had thrown rocks at her. Laura Wood was lynched in 1930 North Carolina after being accused of stealing a ham. Anthony Crawford was lynched in South Carolina two years before my father was born for “rejecting a white merchant’s bid for cottonseed.”
Thomas Miles allegedly wrote a note to a white woman in Shreveport, Louisiana. General Lee knocked on a white woman’s front door. A black construction worker committed the racial sin of demanding a white coworker return his shovel. Jesse Thornton didn’t address a white police officer with the title “mister.” Ernest McGowan had the audacity to report a group of white men who had attacked him. Robert Mallard dared to vote in 1948 Georgia. Sometimes the mobs attacked entire communities of black people because they had grown successful. Sometimes they paraded a bullet-riddled corpse in front of black homes as a warning.
Most such killings happened in the South, but hundreds were documented in the North. They were the worst, most effective kind of terror, often done in broad daylight and in the presence of sometimes thousands of white people—men, women, children, who looked on as Mary Turner and others were burned alive. Turner’s eight-month-old fetus was cut from her belly and stomped on as her lifeless body was hanging upside down. In Texas, two black men were burned to death and the female members of their family were gang-raped. The murders were arbitrary and backed by the force of law and institutions at all levels of government. Law enforcement officials often participated or looked the other way. If you were black, your guilt depended solely upon the discretion of white people, no matter your actual innocence. A black person’s greatest sin, aside from being a black man accused of having a relationship with a white woman, was daring to point out crimes for which whites were complicit.