By Bryce Cracknell, ’18

Dedicated to Joseph McNeely 08/26/1913 and Willie McDaniel 06/29/1929.

Lynching in America still exists today. It is a fundamental part of our country’s legacy. To ignore or deny our ugly history is to further perpetuate its pervasive existence. The Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum forces us to struggle with these hard truths. Located in a former slave warehouse, the museum draws the profound connections from slavery to mass incarceration, describing how racism, racial violence, and white supremacy have evolved over the centuries. The Lynching Memorial is a powerfully disorienting and harrowing experience where we only begin to feel the gravity of these events.

Walking through the maze of rusted steel cases bounded to the ceiling, my neck slowly tilts toward the heavens as I step deeper into the memorial. I read the names of thousands of people stripped of their humanity. Seeking the name of my county, I get chills each time I see the names of locations I recognize; places where I grew up, played soccer, and visited family. I avoid looking at the sidewalls where small plaques hold written descriptions of each lynching. I know that one of the reasons for many of these killings was the fear that someone, such as myself could exist; a bi-racial black man created out of love. Soon, hanging over my head I see Mecklenburg County and the names of Joseph McNeely and Willie McDaniel.

Lynchings were acts of terrorism. They inflicted trauma on black communities, suppressing their agency and reinforcing the laws of Jim Crow. Lynchings were often a public spectacle. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of white people gathered in the town square to take photos, listen to music, share food, and play games. Extended families were sent postcards of smiling children with strange fruit dangling in the background. The memorial and museum present a true reckoning on American history and many of the patterns of that time can still be seen today.

A Man Was Lynched Today. 9 killed in shooting at Emanuel AME Church.
A Man Was Lynched Today. Voter suppression of African Americans with “almost surgical precision.”
A Man Was Lynched Today. People in Flint, Michigan still do not have clean water.
A Man Was Lynched Today. Communities in eastern North Carolina are being exploited by the hog industry.
A Man Was Lynched Today. Starbucks. Waffle House.
A Man Was Lynched Today. Black Americans incarcerated five times more than white people.
A Man Was Lynched Today. Over 24 percent of black people live in poverty.
A Man Was Lynched Today. “We haven’t seen this in the first world.”
A Man Was Lynched Today. Michael Brown. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Keith Scott. Freddie Gray. Walter Scott. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland.

Photo by Emily Stewart

Black people dying at the hands of police is a modern form of lynching. Like previous lynchings, police killings went uncovered by the news media until people started recording on social media. Similarly, Ida B. Wells traveled around the country to report on lynchings, bringing these acts of violence to the forefront of the American conscience. The reality is that we still live with the fear and trauma that many black people lived under decades ago. Historically, no person in a lynching mob was ever prosecuted. Today, no police officer has been convicted.

“Lynchings represent the failure our nation’s systems.” – Sherilyn Ifill

Our failure as a nation to confront our history and these truths is what allows these same incidents to manifest today. In some cases, there have been deliberate attempts to distort or cover up our history as a way of gaslighting black people of our plight. The Peace and Justice Summit shows that our lives and our history matters. It has been left up to incredible institutions like Tuskegee University, organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative, and people like Ida B. Wells to keep this history alive. We may be moving in the right direction. The removal of Confederate statues from public places and the creation of monuments and markers of lynching is a part of what Michelle Alexander describes as the “revolutionary birth of a new nation.”

“We must have truth for reconciliation.” – Michelle Alexander