Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.
In April, the Equal Justice Initiative opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The museum examines the connections between past and present, the lingering legacy of racial injustice. The memorial remembers the victims of a sustained domestic terror campaign, the thousands of African-Americans who were lynched to maintain white supremacy. Partly educational in nature, partly a sacred space, these long-overdue tributes ask visitors to reflect on the nation’s racist past and consider how racial inequalities continue. In June, the three African-American senators — Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both Democrats, and Republican Tim Scott — introduced a federal anti-lynching bill, a long-deferred dream of civil rights activists. These developments should invite reflection here in the West, as well, on our region’s history of violence against people of color.
Scholars of lynching debate its definition, some even concluding that it is impossible to define. One commonly used, but still contested, definition from 1940 listed several necessary conditions: “There must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.” Because definitions are difficult and evidence elusive, the precise number of lynching victims remains unknown. But the death toll hovers somewhere around 5,000.