On May 22, 1917, at the Old Wolf River bridge, a black man was doused with gasoline and thrown alive into a bonfire.
Five thousand people watched. The crowd was unusually large because of an announcement of the place and time in the Memphis press and the fact that a number of county schools had been let out early so students could attend.
Ell Persons, a local woodcutter, had been charged with rape and murder of a young white girl and was awaiting trial when a mob took matters into its own hands. Eventually the charred body of Ell Persons was pulled out of the fire and dismembered. His remains were taken to Beale Street, where pieces were hurled at black pedestrians.
Between 1882 and 1930, 214 people were lynched in Tennessee. There were 21 lynchings in Memphis and Shelby County, easily exceeding any other county in Tennessee.
While most of the lynching sites and many of the victims' names have faded into history, the terror and savagery of lynching have festered below the surface of our community, manifested in the feelings of guilt, shame, anger and denial.
Recent deadly confrontations around the country between police and young black men sadly highlight the need to address these issues that continue to divide us.
This is why it matters that we tell all the truth about our history. It matters because it speaks to the essence of what it means to be human. It speaks to basic human decency. It is important because as individuals, families, congregations and communities we cannot experience true healing unless we face our histories and face ourselves.
Racism is America's original sin. The hidden wounds of racism that we all carry, whether we are black, brown, white or some blend of these, cannot be healed unless we face them. This is why we have joined a national network of citizens who believe it is urgent that we acknowledge and publicize these lynchings, hold memorial services for the victims and place markers at every site we can find.
Closely related to this work are current markers that do not tell the whole truth about our history.
At B. B. King Boulevard (Third Street) and Adams Avenue, the site of the former home of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a marker speaks of Forrest's "business enterprises" that made him wealthy. It does not reveal the fact that he made most of his wealth from his slave-trading business, which was located two blocks from his home at 87 Adams. These words are far from the truth we need to face.
We believe this marker needs to come down. The meanings of Nathan Bedford Forrest's life will continue to be preserved in stories and scholarship. But the history hidden behind the half-truths of this marker has been an enduring insult to all the black citizens of the Memphis area. It is also a blight on the soul of Shelby County and the heart of this city. It is wrong for us to live with half-truths. We are better than that.
So we write as concerned white citizens of Shelby County. We write in support of black leadership in the struggle against racism. But it is also vitally important that white people acknowledge the work that is ours to do as we both follow and lead. We have all heard the words, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."
We welcome all elected officials and all citizens of Shelby County to join us in this work. At noon on Thursday, beside the marker at B. B. King and Adams, we will have an Interfaith Prayer Servicefor Truth.
Everyone is welcome. We need all people of good will to join us in this and other efforts to find the honesty and humility that will allow our community to heal and to grow.
Tom Carlson is a retired professor of English at the University of Memphis. Rev. Randall Mullins of Memphis is a minister in the United Church of Christ.