In his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine individuals killed in the Charleston massacre last year, President Obama affirmed that taking down the Confederate flag on South Carolina's state capitol "would be one step in an honest accounting of America's history. A modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds." The next day, Black activist Bree Newsome scaled the statehouse flagpole to remove the flag herself. By the time she made it to the top, the pole was flanked by cops, who arrested her upon her descent. She was charged with defacing a monument. Newsome later explained her action, saying: "Every day that flag is up there is an endorsement of hate." A month later, the South Carolina House voted to remove the flag, but the charges against Newsome were not dropped.
Confederate-flag enthusiasts claim it is simply a way of honoring the valor of Confederate soldiers, an expression of Southern pride. But in Columbia, as elsewhere in the South, the capitol's flag was not actually a holdover from the end of the Civil War. South Carolina's governor erected the flag in 1962 to protest desegregation and the civil-rights movement. In effect, the Confederate flag was strategically planted as an endorsement of institutional racism precisely when such institutions were being threatened.
"It wouldn't be crazy not to want to go to Alabama, or Mississippi, or Georgia, or America," says Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, professor, and founder of the Equal Justice Institute (EJI), a legal nonprofit based in Montgomery. "I've lived in Alabama for 30 years, and I still feel anxiety and doubt and insecurity living in that state. I am very worried about being victimized and injured and attacked and menaced because I am Black." Stevenson is deeply invested in thinking about how the United States remembers and symbolizes its history of racism. He is one of the country's most active advocates for the construction of memorials to victims of slavery and lynching.
In February of 2015, the EJI published "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror." The report documents the history of "racial terror lynching" in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950, and notes that "no prominent memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in America." In a response to the report, the New York Times editorial board argued that America's history of lynching must be integrated into the national conversation about America's past and present. The board endorsed the EJI's call to construct memorials for the victims of racial lynching as an essential part of the work of acknowledgment.
This past December, in Brighton, Alabama, the EJI raised a memorial for William Miller. A white mob lynched Mr. Miller in 1908. He was a coal miner and a union organizer blamed for the bombing of his boss's home (the explosion was in fact set off by whites trying to undermine unionization). The memorial sits near City Hall, recognizing one of the many mostly forgotten and unrecognized victims of lynching and testifying to an American practice and legacy.
At present, there are about a dozen such lynching memorials across the country which were built independently of the EJI. But the EJI's aim is to organize a coordinated national effort to ensure not only that all victims are remembered, but also that America as a whole comes to understand its history. The memorials are meant to function as a partial remedy to what Stevenson calls the "complete absence of awareness and understanding — just total ignorance — about the legacies of slavery." The Brighton memorial to William Miller is the EJI's first official lynching marker, and there are six others currently in the works. To do justice to every person who was lynched, the EJI will have to erect nearly 4,000 more.