The Equal Justice Initiative's National Memorial for Peace and Justice to honour the over four thousand African-Americans who were lynched in the 70 years that followed the American Civil War, opens in Montgomery, Alabama on Thursday, 26 April 2018. This historic period in the United States has been called the "reign of racial terror".
Montgomery was the site of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955 for refusing to give up her seat up to a white passenger on a city bus. Four days later, following the distribution of pamphlets by civil rights activists calling for a boycott of the Montgomery bus system, some 40,000 black bus riders, the majority of bus riders in Montgomery, participated in the boycott. On the first day of the boycott, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was established to guide the boycott, with the young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr as its elected President. The boycott leaders demanded the desegregation of the buses. King was arrested and spent two weeks in jail. A year later, in November 1956, after 381 days, the United States Supreme Court, declared Alabama's racial segregation of buses unconstitutional. The ruling became effective on 20 December 1956. Sadly, the desegregation of the Montgomery buses, was met with great violence.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott had been the first major non-violent civil-rights protest against racial segregation in the United States. It ignited the civil rights movement and other protests that culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act which made racial segregation illegal. The segregation of black and white people had been justified on grounds that it provided for separate but equal development. As in South Africa, this policy fostered inequality and racial discrimination that continues into the present. A short video that relates this story can be found at https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott
It is in this significant city that Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who leads the Equal Justice Initiative, has built the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial was recently visited by Oprah Winfrey for CBS's 60 Minutes programme. The interview can be found at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/inside-the-memorial-to-victims-of-lynching-60-minutes-oprah-winfrey/
In the interview, Bryan Stevenson explains that "there is a reckoning taking place in America over how we remember our history. Much of the focus has been on whether or not to take down monuments that celebrate the Confederacy." Stevenson, a criminal defence lawyer, who has successfully overturned the wrongful convictions of over 100 people on death row in the United States, explains,"Lynchings were not isolated murders committed only by men in white hoods in the middle of the night. Often, they were public crimes, witnessed -- even celebrated -- by thousands of people."
Stevenson believes the healing of the wounds of racial division depends on the education of all Americans about the reign of racial terror that the ending of the Civil War meant for black people who were supposed to get the right to vote. The anticipation of black people getting the vote, generated massive fear amongst white people about their envisaged loss of their political control. It is in this context, that lynching became the main mechanism for intimidating black people. As Stevenson explains "lynching was especially effective because it would allow the whole community to know that we did this to this person. It was intended to send a message that if you try to vote, if you try to advocate for your rights, if you insist on fair wages, if you do anything that complicates white supremacy and white dominance and political power, we will kill you."
For Khulumani, the awareness that we share so much of the same history of racial segregation and intimidation,makes it evident that there is no way to deal with such devastating histories other than to confront them, so that these histories, like any disease, can be treated.
Stevenson explains, "A lot of folks were lynched because they showed too much dignity. They showed too much humanity. A person who just wanted to be respected as a human being, got hanged. The psychic damage done is real, not only to black people, but also to white people. Its legacy can be seen in the indifference we show to people who look different from ourselves." The degree of damage could be considered as tragic. All people are burdened by histories of racial discrimination, regardless of their race. No-one is free when they live under the dark cloud of a history that they may have failed. to that point, to have engaged or to have worked to transform through deliberate processes of unlearning. The inequality of our own society bears testimony to the consequences of the policies of our apartheid past.
A critical source of information on the cost of our own history is the Khulumani Database that contains the records of some 104,000 victims and survivors of apartheid gross human rights violations, that resulted from the massive resistance to change policies of discrimination by many settlers to this land, as they struggled to maintain white supremacy. This database needs to be transformed into an online, accessible, living record of a history that to a great extent remains invisible. The development of this online archive needs public support.
- If you are willing to assist us in preserving this remarkable archive, please make your contributions to our PayFast facility on our website.