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The Importance of Truth and Reconciliation

Written Wednesday, July 17, 2019

How many of us know that after the Civil War during the Jim Crow era there were 22 lynchings in New Hanover County, North Carolina? This number represents only the lynchings that have been documented by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal practice defending the poor and wrongly convicted, founded in Montgomery, Alabama, by Bryan Stevenson.            

Stevenson is a Harvard-educated black lawyer who also founded and opened in April 2018 in Montgomery the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (sometimes referred to as the “Lynching Memorial”). There is a full-length documentary about him on HBO called “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality.” He wrote the poignant book Just Mercy, about the struggle to free from death row a poor black man, Walter McMillian, incarcerated for thirty years for a crime he did not commit. 

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth,” Stevenson says; “the opposite of poverty is justice.”  

In an interview in the Spring 2019 issue of Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Stevenson talks about how he feels our society minimizes violence against black people. 

By remembering their names, the Memorial honors the more than 4,000 blacks who were brutally lynched. On 800 symbolically hanging iron sheets, each representing the county in which the lynching(s) occurred--yes, 800 counties--are engraved the forgotten victim’s name and date of his or her death. 

Stevenson says the goal of the Memorial and its neighboring Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is for visitors to “experience the scale of this violence” which he frankly calls terrorism. 

Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina is by Margaret M. Mulrooney, who was a visiting professor at UNCW during the centennial commemoration of the 1898 coup d’état.  While she enjoyed strolling Wilmington’s river walk, as a history professor, she was all too aware that a slave market once thrived in the Port City at the foot of Market Street.       

Looking east from the walk across the Cape Fear River, Mulrooney’s research helped her imagine in 1766 the public wharf where a ferry transported people across the water to town. She reports that on the basis of news of twenty runaway slaves having taken refuge in Wilmington amid rumors of a slave uprising (an unverified conspiracy), “county magistrates ordered the sheriff to raise a posse of thirty ‘well-arm’d’ men to pursue them. . . Not only did the would-be slave rebels hang, but the judges ordered their heads mounted on posts”-- why the road was called Nigger Head Road.

“Through place-naming,” Mulrooney observes,” violence against blacks became further integrated into the everyday settings and activities of the community.”  What does walking by human heads impaled on posts lining the road do to the mind and spirit of the adults and children who see them?

What does it do to the mind and spirit to sip lemonade at a lynching? To watch with sometimes crowds of hundreds the torture of the victim with knives or fire before he or she is lynched? To take home pieces of clothing, ears, or fingers of the lynched as souvenirs?  Or buy a postcard of a photograph of the lynching, the “Strange Fruit” hanging from trees about which in 1939 Billie Holiday famously sang. 

Stevenson wants to show how “slavery, lynching and segregation” have morphed into “incarceration, police violence and racial bias today.” Statistics in the EJI’s “Lynching in America” report document the eerie evolution showing when capital punishment became the new lynching.             

Today “African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the nation’s population, but nearly 42 percent of those currently on death row in America are black, and 34 percent of those executed since 1976 have been black.”  

In Bishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness about the difficult, frustrating, but ultimately gratifying work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as it faced the legacy of apartheid, he could be speaking about slavery’s legacy when he warns against “national amnesia” and the attitude of “let bygones be bygones.” 

“Unless we look the beast in the eye,” Tutu says, “we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.” 






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