To hear Bryan Stevenson tell it, the brutal history of lynchings in America is missing a crucial element: a narrative that shows the full extent of the damage that thousands of these murders inflicted on the black community. It’s a chapter that has a critical place in the wider story of racial injustice in the US to this day, he says.
With the help of technology, Stevenson, a public-interest lawyer and one of the most prominent anti-mass-incarceration advocates in the US, wants to build this historical consciousness.
“One of the reasons we are saying things like ‘Black Lives Matter’ is because our history suggests that we haven’t totally committed to valuing those who have been terrorized, enslaved, segregated, and abused,” he says.
Stevenson leads the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that—with technical and financial support from Google.org—has created an interactive platform that documents the number of lynchings in the southern United States, county-by-county.
The platform launches today (June 13) and includes a number of other elements: short “oral history” videos that feature descendants of lynching victims, as well as another interactive map that shows the great northward migration of African-Americans from the south.
Even with the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the outlawing of slavery in the US, Stevenson says, the institution did not die. Slavery evolved.
“It turns into decades of terrorism and violence, an era that we have not talked very much about,” he said during a June 6 press briefing. “We go from the Civil War to the civil-rights movement without any appreciation of all of the damage that was done during that 100-year period.”
There was a point in his work, Stevenson said, when he realized that any efforts to eliminate the racial bias and discrimination in US courts would go nowhere if the courts weren’t aware of the history in which these prejudices are rooted.
The new site was born out of EJI’s 2015 “Lynching in America” report, created by the group’s researchers painstakingly gathering information on incidents across the south. They identified 800 lynchings that had not been previously documented.
The stories include that of Thomas Miles, a black man who was lynched in 1912, in Shreveport, Louisiana, for allegedly passing a white woman a note. His family’s return to the south after 100 years is subject of a mini documentary on the new platform:
The project emphasizes the connection of lynchings to present-day America—particularly the criminal-justice system. “They took off the white robe, and put on the black robe,” says Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who served three decades on death row after a wrongful conviction, in one EJI video.
“The death penalty is lynching’s stepchild,” said Stevenson, who represented Hinton in court. “We have police violence, we have these excessive punishments that have been tolerated because we don’t understand the connection between lynching and segregation and excessive abuse in the criminal-justice space.”
The platform is part of EJI’s larger initiative to commemorate the history of racial injustice in the US, supported by two $1 million grants from Google. It includes a museum, and the Memorial to Peace and Justice, a physical monument that will document the names of the victims of lynching, to be built in Montgomery, Alabama. It will be composed of more than 800 columns representing counties where lynchings occurred—a repetitive, rhythmic structure somewhat resembling in its concept the Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
Stevenson makes the connection outright. In Germany, he says “there is a conscious effort to acknowledge the history of the Holocaust. The Germans want you to go to that Holocaust memorial, they are trying to create a new identity.” This identity is meant to engender hope. “And in this country we haven’t done that. Where I live, I’m surrounded by iconography of hate, I’m surrounded by these confederate memorials and statues,” he said, speaking of his home in Montgomery.
By surrounding people with stories of the past and creating a “new iconography” in the present, Stevenson says he hopes ”it will cause us to have conversation about this need to recover.”