Editor’s note: This is the last of a three-part series by Cuenca expat John Keeble about his recent visit to the U.S. deep south and presents a British traveller’s view of the music and civil rights sites of the region. To read the first installment, click here. To read yesterday’s installment, click here.
By John Keeble
Elizabeth Lawrence reprimanded white children throwing rocks at her in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1933 – soon afterwards, she was lynched for talking to the children in that way.
Her story, which I read at the recently-opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, is far from unique.
More than 4,400 African American men, women and children have been identified as victims of lynching, often as public spectacles with advance advertising and invitations for all the family to enjoy it.
Many thousands of victims cannot be identified, says the memorial project organisers, the Equal Justice Initiative, an NGO base in Montgomery.
The killer communities got away with murder because the victims were black and the mobs were white – and the ruling white culture in the deep South of the United States between 1877 and 1950 applauded such acts. Lynchings were open, public and used to keep freed slaves and their descendants cowed into submission.
Even today, that psychological pain from the culture of violent oppression lingers in many people of colour. The past is still with us, especially now that extremists in the US – and Europe – are seeking to turn up the flame of racial hate.
The six-acre memorial site is on the edge of Montgomery, with its associated Legacy Museum several miles away in the downtown area.
When I walked into the memorial site, I was immediately confronted by a stark metal representation of the realities of slavery. Pain and anguish radiated from the metal figures, and nearby the stories were displayed on a series of wall panels.
A slow walk up to the main monument seemed to ratchet up the tension until I reached the 800-plus steel slabs, each suspended and bearing the names the counties where lynchings occurred and the names of victims.
The sheer number of the memorial slabs hammer at the mind and speak volumes for the voiceless ones who were burned alive, hanged, shot, drowned and beaten to death by white mobs.
One of the most shocking aspects, for me, was the cold-blooded, calculated way that the lynchings were carried out. It was not violence in the heat of the moment – it was a reign of terror during which murder was a social encouraged as a means of repression and often turned into entertainment. Many were advertised in advance, turned into an event, and recorded as reports and even postcards afterwards.
(Article continues below photo.)
Today, memorial visitors struggle to come to terms with it. Their subdued reading of the names and lynching descriptions brings home the horrors. Some find their own home areas implicated in the murders.
“The memorial is more than a static monument,” says the Equal Justice Initiative. Outside the main structure, 800 matching engraved slabs stretch across the site. They are awaiting collection and installation by the counties they name. “Over time, the memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”
On the way out, the power of the suspended monument slabs bleed into shocking stories of victims: Charles Atkins, 15, burned alive… Jesse Thornton lynched for addressing a policeman without the title of “Mister”… Will Brown killed by a mob of up to 15,000 people…
The New York Times, commented: “[This monument] demands a reckoning with one of the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror.”
For visitors, it is an education and a warning.
Photos by John Keeble.
John Keeble is British-born photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He “retired” after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 11 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues. He has had wide coverage for his articles and photographs since moving to Cuenca in February 2016.