As I will be vacating the Board of Lynching Sites Project of Memphis July 1, this is my valedictory statement about work with this very significant organization in our community.
LYNCHING SITES PROJECT MEMPHIS: A GOOD AND HOLY WORK
by Fred Morton
April 26, 2020
In the fall of 2012, I was touring Europe and had occasion to visit the Documentation Center in Nuremberg Germany. This repurposing of the architectural marvels of the Third Reich is in the heartland of Bavaria. Currently, it is designed to give an unflinching account of the horrific history of Hitler’s empire. That message is powerfully conveyed in one display where open rail cars are filled with names of its victims on placards. Visually the impression is of a cargo train that is endless as is the list of the victims it carries. The irony I took from that experience was this. We in America had built a system of violent racial oppression over three centuries. Third Reich appropriated and marshaled it on an industrial scale in less than a decade from 1934-45. For me, it was illuminating and devastating to consider that we in America have set the type which Hitler and his henchmen emulated with fierce and deadly efficiency. To me the seed of the holocaust was somehow set in America and nowhere have we acknowledged.
So after that sobering experience in Nuremberg, it wasn’t long until I found myself among the ranks of several in the Memphis community who were willing to deal with that buried and violent past. A small group had been prodded to establish a local organization following the lead of the Equal Justice Initiative led by attorney Bryan Stevenson. That group based in Montgomery Alabama has researched the data of known lynchings in the USA since the end of the Civil War. Surprisingly the number only around 4000 and in Shelby County we have about 36. Thus far LSP Memphis has conducted public services for four. Research continues to uncover the deeply buried history of this most painful past.
It was an interesting group that galvanized around this arresting unsettling task. We had clergy academics, community activists, persons of all sorts deeply troubled and eager to attend to this holy work or uncovering the past which had been so devastating to a major segment of our community. We partnered with a number of organizations and groups such as Facing History, the Civil Rights Museum, the Hooks Institute at the University of Memphis, the NAACP, the US National Parks Service, various houses of faith and worship, colleges and universities and seminaries and government officials. The list of persons eager to pursue this work was endless. The energy and heartfelt support were genuine and inspiring.
One of the most telling incidents for me was at the Ell Person’s remembrance held May 2017 on the 100th anniversary of that event. Following a moving ceremony which involved local government leaders representatives of most faiths, young people, artists, and Scouts. At the conclusion of these services, I was approached by an African American gentleman who was shepherding his near 10-year-old grandchild. He saw I had on an LSP T-shirt, and in a very moving comment said with tears in his eyes, “I can’t tell you what this means to me. Thank You.” So I read into that many things. Perhaps it was simply catharsis. Perhaps it opened a window for later discussions. Who knows? But I know that the event was deeply moving and hopefully healing. What more could you ask?
You see, this is the really difficult work of LSP. Digging into the specifics of a particular lynching. You sketch out the historical context. You begin to put a human face on all the players, victims, perpetrators, public officials, surviving family members. And it is never a pretty picture at all. Even though at the time public lynchings were considered spectacles almost for entertainment. The impact on victims, their families their communities was incalculable. The widespread practice of lynchings around the 1890s triggered the great migration of African Americans out of the South into the industrial North and West. Lynchings had the effect of wresting property from African Americans and stifling all efforts at improvement. And it laid a heavy burden of trauma on family and community as well.
Those injuries continue down the generations. The effects of that terror keep on having a destructive impact. These are wounds deeply stifling to the health of survivors and the wider community.
A good friend in the LSP community remarked at a recent meeting: Jesus was a man of color and he was lynched. That statement should sink in to those of us of white persuasion and skins complexion. It is arresting but essentially true and bears startlingly close to the biblical narrative that God’s cosmic act of deliverance comes through the dispossessed, the second class denizens who have over the centuries been the victims of pogroms, lynchings, and racial terrorizing of all sorts. And the kingdom of heavenly reality toward which we all spire and whose eminent presence is promised involves our coming to terms of real repentance about our role in the scheme of things—ours and our ancestors. And then working to make amends, leveling the playing fields, and bring in the day of true equity and justice.