Only the truth will set us free

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 5/8/2018, 11:57 p.m.
We want to tell the truth, because we believe in truth and reconciliation but we know that truth and reconciliation ...

Children’s Defense Fund

We want to tell the truth, because we believe in truth and reconciliation but we know that truth and reconciliation are sequential. We can’t get to where we’re trying to go if we don’t tell the truth first. – Bryan Stevenson

On April 26, I was deeply honored to participate in the opening summit of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. These profoundly moving new landmarks are the vision of Bryan Stevenson, the brilliant founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Bryan has spent his professional life fighting unjust incarceration, especially death row cases, and fighting for racial justice in our criminal system. This has evolved to include the consuming determination to document, remember, and honor the victims of racial terror and lynchings in America – work now immortalized at this museum and memorial which I encourage everyone to visit and take your children and grandchildren with you.

EJI has identified more than 4,400 Black men, women and children who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by White mobs between 1877 and 1950. They are honored here in a powerful and sacred outdoor space where their names and dates of death are engraved onto 800 steel monuments, one for every county where a racial terror lynching took place. Many of the monuments are suspended from the ceiling, literally evoking a hanging. EJI explains why this memorial was needed, “EJI believes that publicly confronting the truth about our history is the first step toward recovery and reconciliation. A history of racial injustice must be acknowledged, and mass atrocities and abuse must be recognized and remembered, before a society can recover from mass violence… The museum and memorial are part of EJI’s work to advance truth and reconciliation around race in America and to more honestly confront the legacy of slavery, lynching and segregation.”

This confrontation of America’s original birth defects is desperately needed. Lynching, Jim Crow, and legal segregation were all part of a deep-seated pattern of racial subordination in America that lasted long after slavery ended and affects us still. Today, racially skewed rates of gun deaths, school suspensions, corporal punishment, incarceration, illiteracy, and poverty have become new ways of continuing the same old patterns. Lynchings may have stopped but the assault on Black bodies, children and communities has not and Black opportunity still lags behind that of Whites.

More than 150 years after slavery was legally abolished, Black children and teens are still being sentenced to physical, social, and economic death in our nation at astonishing rates. EJI data show between 1877 and 1950, at least one Black person was killed by lynching every week on average among the 12 most active lynching states – Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia – and some of the most pronounced racial disparities today still exist in those states.

Consider a few facts: Black child remain the poorest child in America. In 2016, about 1 in 3 Black children were poor and a Black baby was born into poverty every four minutes. In 6 of the 12 states with the highest lynching rates, Black child poverty rates were at least 40 percent.