The Lynching Museum

By Joanne Dufour posted 06-06-2018 12:36:11 AM


They hung in reverend silence, those slabs of steel stained with orange, gold, sienna, burnt umber, chocolate, ebony identified by county and etched with names and dates – sometimes “Unknown” and the date. There were hundreds of slabs in staggered rows, a memorial to the 4000 victims of lynchings all over the southeast. It was somber and serious, yet peaceful and serene. It was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Memorial Park now open in Montgomery, Alabama. Racial terror lynchings were not restricted to the South but the 20 states identified in the park had the largest number. They included Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia between 1877 and 1950

Complementing the park was the Legacy Museum a bit closer to downtown Montgomery. From enslavement to mass incarceration was the message greeting the visitor, along with holographs of women, men, boys and girls sharing their souls as they told their stories of enslavement. Visitors are led through passageways filled with photos and text descriptions or first person quotations of selected persons from 1877 to current day.

As the Executive Director, Bryan Stevenson, explains, “Our museum is a “narrative museum”. We want to tell not only the story of how destructive and traumatizing slavery was, but also the story of how it evolved. Decades of racial terrorism and lynching followed the Civil War…” Many victims were killed for “offenses” like arguing with a white person, not stepping off the sidewalk when a white person passed, asking a white woman for a drink of water, failing to call a white man “mister”.  The minimalist grounds for lynching accepted by authorities were treated with impunity by large -- sometimes huge --mobs that proudly mailed photograph postcards of hanging corpses to friends or family. “The defiant resistance to integration and racial equality that opposed the Civil Rights Movement is often ignored when we discuss that era. …We have failed to acknowledge the deeply entrenched views of white supremacy that characterized the reaction to civil rights activism. Instead, we focus on courageous civil rights activists.” Activists regularly faced arrest and prosecution. {The Legacy Museum Book produced by staff of  the Equal Justice Initiative available from their website:}

But the museum also portrays the incarceration that followed with first person simulated phone conversations with both female and male prisoners, sample letters of appeals, children sentenced as adults, and the death penalty. While the Civil Rights movement addressed discrimination in voting, education, employment, housing, and public accommodation, the situation in the criminal justice field was largely avoided.

And yet, “The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The increase in the jail and prison population from less than 200,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million today has led to unprecedented prison overcrowding and put tremendous strain on state budgets. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.”

The death penalty in America is a direct descendant of lynching. More than eight in ten American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South, and more than eight in ten of the more than 1400 executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South. African Americans make up 42 percent of people sentenced to death nationwide and 34 percent of those executed since 1976.

This museum tells it as it was and as it is. It fills in the gaps in our history books and provides a courageous look at the truth. The Director’s book, Just Mercy, a Story of Justice and Redemption, has a discussion guide for teachers based on the common core standards, available on the website. It is well worth a visit and a field trip if possible. If not the website is a fine alternative.