Why Remember Lynching in America?

By Taylor Bell

But, why do I (Taylor, a white person) need to remember America’s history of lynching? I was haunted by this question while at the opening ceremony for the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Legacy Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, AL. The event was to commission EJI’s tenuous work in remembering and memorializing the victims of lynching. Though I was inspired by incredible speeches, dialogues, and testimonials, the question hounded my soul: Why do I need to remember America’s history of lynching? Why can’t we just worry about the present? Yes, I recognize that our country’s history of lynching is a dark sin on the American soul, deeply connected to our other sins of slavery and genocide. And because of its painfulness and shame we have mostly forgotten our collective history. Just think about it. The history of lynching is barely taught in schools, given little to no public space (unlike Confederate Monuments), and it certainly does not come up over Thanksgiving dinner when reminiscing about the family. This museum and memorial then is an effort to remember against America’s dominant currents to forget. EJI’s hope is that our collective remembering may provide healing from this traumatic past and guide our racial justice efforts in the present. I understood and agreed with all of this, yet why couldn’t I shake off this haunting question?

For me, the question why do I need to remember? is not born out of philosophical, theological, or ideological disagreement. On an intellectual level I completely understand why we white folks need to remember America’s history of lynching. Primarily, this history helps to explain present day racial inequalities by revealing their past roots. Lynching was extrajudicial, meaning that it wasn’t exactly legal, yet because it supported a legally racist society it always went unpunished. When we realize this truth, and recognize that nothing has been done to correct such historical injustice, we begin to take seriously the claims that America’s justice system is still racist today.

Cognitively, I know this truth. Yet the question still haunts me: Why do we have to dwell in the past? And then I realized it! This question has never been about intellectual agreement. It is about something more deeply existential: the soul, my soul, my white soul. I am a Southern white male pastor. Though born and raised in Louisville, KY (more like the South-lite), my family roots trace themselves to Wetumpka, AL and I have spent the past 9 years in the South. The South is in my blood. And so too is Elmore County’s history of lynching. I don’t know if any of my family members from Elmore County ever participated in a lynching. But I do know that Alabama’s dark past of racial terrorism defines my present. To say otherwise is to deny the truth that violence bears consequences. As I reflect on lynchings, it becomes apparent they did more than terrorize black communities. They also violently reminded white communities that white supremacy was the law of the land. To see a dead human hanging from a tree is traumatizing, no matter who you are. And to kill another human inflicts trauma on the self. We whites couldn’t commit such horrific violence unscathed. We had to believe something to justify our actions and hide from our sins.

So, we invented the fiction of racism. A fiction that told us white people were better than black people, that black people deserved their enslavement and lynching, and that black people weren’t even people. Racism has always been a fiction we whites told and retold to ease our moral conscience from the truth that we were enslaving and slaughtering fellow human beings. With this fiction, it becomes a lot easier to unquestionably mutilate, murder, and terrorize black people. Because to see black people as humans means that lynching was terrorism and murder, which means our white ancestors were terrorist and murderers. This realization does more than spoil the turkey on Thanksgiving dinner (not to mention spoil the entire holiday of Thanksgiving). It raises shameful questions about my history, my ancestry, my family, about me. The question why must I remember is about my soul because it is about where I come from, who I am. I don’t want to remember because I don’t want to find out truths I’d rather not know about my family. It’s rather much easier to “forget” America’s legacy of lynching; to abide by white America’s collective silence on the issue. Because to actually remember means we have to acknowledge and talk about what our ancestors did or didn’t do. And oh Lord, that is just too dark, scary, and sinful. For the sake of my soul I’d rather not remember.

Yes, the Civil Rights Movement taught us whites that racism is bad. But, by leaning on the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, we whites could ease our collective moral conscience by proclaiming racism was gone without ever having to collectively face our history of racial terrorism, enslavement, and genocide. And we still avoid collective responsibility today. Yes, we say racism is bad. But who is responsible for it? That is a question we whites like to keep a question. You think I’m wrong? There is no national holiday or date where whites have ever truly apologized for the horrific sins of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching. Not in the Emancipation Proclamation, not during Reconstruction, not with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and not today. In 2008, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee issued an apology from the House of Representatives for slavery and Jim Crow. However, I’m hard pressed to believe its shared conviction when my own state of Alabama creates laws protecting Confederate Monuments (the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act), yet has no legal proceeding to remember those lynched by Confederate veterans—in 2017! Today, we Southern whites prefer our romantic stories of an Antebellum South like Gone with the Wind, to have our weddings on old Southern plantations, and tell ourselves the Confederacy was never about slavery, all the while denying the damning truths hidden by these stories, places, and beliefs. (The Confederacy was about states’ rights: a state’s right to keep their slaves. Check out the Mississippi Declaration of Secession) Racism is a fiction that continues to thrive today. And like all good fiction, the narrative must evolve and develop as time goes on. Thus, the fiction continues today, and so too does its violence and trauma.

Why deny and resist learning the whole truth of our history if there is not something to be afraid of? Deny, resist, and give into fear is exactly what I’ve done. It’s why my question haunted me at the EJI’s opening ceremony. I’ve buried my nose, mind, and heart in historical texts about America’s darkest sins yet have never garnered the courage to ask my relatives about our family’s history in Wetumpka. I’ve treated the movement for racial justice as an intellectual debate and political quandary, but never as a struggle for the soul. And I realized this as I sat there, watching a video of a black family visiting the site in Louisiana where their forefather was lynched. And I wondered, what if my forefathers enacted the lynching? Or watched, celebrated, and shared with family about the good time they had? Not in Louisiana, but maybe Alabama? This question haunts me because I want so desperately to leave this past in the past. And yet, how can I fully love my black brothers and sisters and fully aid the struggle for racial justice as a white male if I cannot face my own history of racism? How can I love and join in justice if I habitual deny my own direct relation to racism’s past? The question why must I remember? held up a mirror that reflected my own denial, revealing I was unconsciously maintaining racism just as I was attempting to dismantle it.

The question remains: why do I need to remember America’s legacy of lynching? Whether I acknowledge it or not, American lynching has defined part of who I am today. I cannot deny this part of me if I wish to strengthen the struggle for racial justice. Because if I’m honest, I strain against this part of me, this racist inheritance, through my own indifference, condemnation, and hopelessness. For I am the great-grandchild of white ancestors who moved along after witnessing the lynched black man swinging in the tree. An oppressive history I was taught to deny. An unconscious lesson learned by my white family’s collective silence on this horrific sin. But despite our attempts to “forget,” lynching occurred, and no one escaped unscathed, pure, saved. Thus, I must remember our history of lynching if desire to be different; if I am to help dismantle white supremacy; if I am to discover how I may be white and non-supremacist.

Learning to be white and non-supremacist is about more than just furthering racial justice. It is also about redemption. Redemption is discovering a new way of life; a life that is life-giving rather than death-dealing. Though being white and non-supremacist is perhaps an unattainable ideal, it is a hopeful ideal nonetheless—and hope has always birthed and strengthened the struggle for love and justice. I must be clear: my thoughts on redemption are not to decenter the essential importance of non-white people’s lives in the work for racial justice. It is to say however that we whites carry our own traumatic history related to lynching. Not a history as victims and survivors. Rather a history as oppressors and murderers. When we whites begin to face the truths of our history, the shame of such realization threatens with hopelessness. But hopelessness is a choice. So too is hope. We can courageously choose hope only when we embrace our history with love. Love always seeks the truth so that it may love better. Love remembers the whole truth of history, and from these truths teaches us how to love better. Love is a verb, and thus redemption is found only through our active loving—both our non-white brothers and sisters and our own white selves. Therefore, it is not enough to just know our history. Hope and love are found when we allow history’s truths to change our present.

The importance of love means racism cannot be healed through politics and institutions. Fixed, maybe. But healed from the soul? Never. Racism is a matter of the heart and soul, not institutions, because racism’s roots are fear and hatred expressed through violence. True, racism is manifested in the institutions and structures that make our country run. But racism is only there because we white folks put it there. And it doesn’t matter how “progressive,” “woke,” or “non-racist” you are as a white person. As long as we whites focus strictly on policy yet ignore the racism of our own communities, schools, places of worship, families, and especially our own souls, the fear and hatred that nurture racism’s violence will forever be present. This is not to deny the importance of political efforts. It is to say however that we whites, especially we progressive whites, escape the hard truthful examination of remembering through politics and blaming other whites for racism. Our blaming other whites is our own form of racism. We maintain racism by choosing to see the splinter in our brothers’ and sisters’ eyes while denying the log in our own.

Love demands that we whites remember by learning the stories of our families. Yes, reading historical texts, watching documentaries, and visiting the EJI’s Legacy Museum and Memorial are all incredibly important. But they cannot connect us as closely to our own individual pasts like our families do. We remember by learning where our ancestors came from and what they did. We remember by asking the avoided questions, giving space for the whole truth, and allowing this truth to guide us. Therefore, from these reflections I am embarking on my own journey of remembering: to learn the stories of my family from the South. And if you haven’t, I invite you to embark on your own journey of remembering. Because we carry our ancestors with us. We are their children, and we are impacted by both their beauty and their sins. As long as we deny racism’s reality as a long gone past event, we allow racism’s hatred and fear to live on and be inherited by the next generation. Yet, we can remember and discover the hopeful reality that a new way of life is possible. Not just for us whites or blacks, but for all of us as America.