The National Memorial for Peace and Justice recently opened in Montgomery, Alabama, to great fanfare. The memorial tells the stories of the more than 4,000 recorded lynchings perpetrated against black men, women and children by American terrorists for nearly 100 years. The crimes were gruesome public spectacle. Victims died by gunshots, hanging, fire, dismemberment and castration. The massacres took place mostly in the South but not entirely. Lynch law was a nationwide phenomenon and while unwritten it was defended as much as any legislation on the books.
As important as it is for the victims to be named and remembered it is important to think about how we should do so. The most important reason to remember painful past events is to direct ourselves politically in the present. There is an understandable temptation to make our experience as visible as that of others whose suffering has been elevated above ours. There was a memorial to the European Jewish holocaust on the Washington mall before there were museums dedicated to African American or Native American history. The oversight isn’t surprising. The genocides which took place on United States soil were ignored precisely because they took place here. Any acknowledgement would have touched too many raw nerves.
Having a memorial dedicated to our oppression is not a victory in and of itself. Lynch law is still practiced today by police across the country. There may not be a mob invited to a hanging or a burning but the police surely function in that role. Lynching didn’t end and it should not be seen as some sort of anomaly rooted in the distant past. Just as numerous efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation failed in the past, so too have efforts to end the modern day version.
The police are the 21stcentury Ku Klux Klan and white citizens councils and the attempt to control them and get them out of our communities have so far come to naught. The extent of police killing became widely known in 2012 when the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement issued their report on the extra judicial killing of black people. Barack Obama was in office when the extent of the death toll was revealed. But the black president who had the power to use federal prosecution against the police mob instead did nothing.
Black people still exist in a political limbo. We are able to exercise the franchise but within the same corrupt duopoly which failed the victims memorialized in Montgomery. To this day one party uses racism as an organizing principle. It is the white peoples’ party. The other is a false friend to black people. In decades past we may have hoped that the Republicans would rescue us from the evil Dixiecrats. Now we cling desperately to the Democrats and hope they keep the Republicans at bay.
For decades black leadership fought unsuccessfully for anti-lynching legislation. Today we fight but still without success for protection from the modern day mob wearing blue uniforms. If we are going to remember an awful past it must be with a plan to finish the sad tale once and for all. It does us little good to know the names and dates of victims one hundred years ago when today we have to remember Stephon Clarke and the unnamed police victims who lose their lives every day.
Nor should anyone be impressed because wealthy hedge fund chieftains from Bain Capital and corporations like Google donate money for museums and memorials. The largesse always comes with strings attached. Their philanthropic contributions are public relations ploys meant to shield them from scrutiny of their actions which are so harmful to millions of people. We should not allow our rightful desire to remember to become an expression of support for what must be thrown out.
Every visitor moved by the history displayed in the new Montgomery memorial should fight for an end to the system which gives us a violent police state. Any black person can be killed by police or caught up in the prison gulag. That means lynch law still lives. It won’t end because of museum exhibits. It will end only with revolutionary deeds of the kind that are thwarted by Bain Capital and Google.
The system in this country was built with anti-black racism as its foundation. Generations of our people have struggled mightily against it and studying their successes and failures is essential. That study should include knowing the awful crimes that are exposed in Montgomery but it can’t end there. The horror lives on and will continue as long as we remain within the confines of what already oppresses us. We have seen this history and we know how it ends.
Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.