On April 26 of this year, the Equal Justice Initiative will open both a memorial and museum in Montgomery, Ala., dedicated to the victims of lynching in America post-Civil War. The memorial is called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the museum is called the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Both were featured with a first-look on Sunday evening’s episode of 60 Minutes.
With reporting done by Auntie O (Oprah Winfrey), the story included a trip to the memorial and museum with the Equal Justice Initiative’s director, Bryan Stevenson.
The soon-to-be-opened monument is riveting in its execution. It features more than 800 pillars hanging from the ceiling, representing the more than 800 counties in America where lynchings have been recorded, and each pillar includes the names and dates (if known) of the victims.
What stood out most about the story on 60 Minutes were the pictures of lynched black people, often with several (up to as many as 15,000) people standing around watching the execution of illegal justice for “crimes” committed by black Americans.
In many of the communities, the lynchings were public spectacles, outings for the entire family to attend, dressed in their Sunday best, with callous articles written that read as if the public torture and deaths of black people were just what one did on a warm afternoon in September. As is often the case with American history, oftentimes it was.
Watching that story pissed me off. No more than usual, but it still pissed me off—though not for the reason you might think.
What truly pissed me off was that I knew for a fact that CBS would receive complaints that it had had the nerve to show the pictures of bodies hanging from rope as a public spectacle. I know that white people HATE seeing their fucked-up-ness. They hate it. They think none of it is necessary to see. To many, the story can be told without the pictorial proof of hate.
CBS clearly knew this was coming because it filmed a whole-ass video with the 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Flager explaining why the network showed the disturbing pictures and how disturbing it was to see all of those white, sometimes jovial, faces in the crowd watching this terrible shit.
I can imagine some white family watching 60 Minutes and being pissed that their children had to see those images of black people hanging from a tree. Maybe they’d even have to answer questions from their children about what was happening. I’m sure most could say that bad people did bad things. But some of those kids would look at the pictures and see the white people and ask, “Why are those white people smiling?”
I’ll bet that was the truly infuriating part (to those who were pissed): that 60 Minutes would show that shit on prime-time television and they’d have to answer questions. Meanwhile, I’m wondering how many of those same people would look at the throngs of spectators and feel sick to their stomachs by the crimes perpetuated by their ancestors, not even 200 years ago.
Those are the same white people who wonder why black colleges exist, or think that black people would be better off if “we just tried harder” at, well, everything.
When I see pictures of lynchings, I get incensed all over again that this country allowed that shit to happen. I know where I live and I know this country’s shitty résumé on race. And still I get upset. And still I hurt for those families.
I’m glad 60 Minutes showed the images because I learned a long time ago that the only way to get people to make change is to make people uncomfortable. If you let people stay comfy in the spaces they occupy, they’ll never do the work to think about whether change is needed.
It’s hard to reconcile oneself with images of black bodies, strange fruit, hanging in the wind, and not in some way consider just how fucked up that form of “justice” was. And that it ever was allowed to happen, and that so many people celebrated that occurrence.
I guess if you’re white, you can divorce yourself from it, but that’s a conscious decision. Maybe you can view that as a bygone time even though today’s justice system kills black bodies with reckless abandon or puts us in jail while white kids who kill black people get off with light, suspended sentences.
We live in a country where fucking affluenza is a thing. Meanwhile, a black kid who didn’t kill anybody is going to jail for 65 years for being present. Not to mention the myriad black people killed by police who aren’t charged with any crimes.
Justice in this country has never favored black people, and I’d wager that every black person alive has a story in their family of significant miscarriages of justice.
This country’s troubled history with race and justice will have to be reckoned with by white people one day, which is one of the stated reasons for the memorial and museum.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. Martin Luther King Jr. said that, and the people who whitewash his mentality and messaging will one day learn what that means.
While I imagine that black people and white people who feel guilt will be the visitors of the museum—and let’s be real, it will be ripe for racist vandalism—I’m glad museums and memorials like this exist to shed more light on this country’s past.
Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
Repetition gets old.