By Dr. E. Faye Williams
On May 17, 1918 in Lowndes County, Georgia, Mary Turner, a 20-year-old, eight-month pregnant widow was lynched. According to reports, she was hung by her ankles, shot, doused with diesel fuel and set ablaze. In due course, her stomach was cut open and her unborn child fell to the ground crying at its unceremonious welcome into this world. Those feeble cries were met with the heel of a boot that crushed its little head into the ground.
Mary’s crime? She was a Black woman who protested the lynching of Hazel “Hayes” Turner, her 19-year-old husband, who was lynched the day before in retaliation for the murder of Hampton Smith, a local white farmer, and the wounding of his wife. Both Mary and Hazel were innocent of the murders and so were the six other Black people lynched in retaliation for the murder and wounding.
Knowledge of this particularly heinous lynching gave an additionally sinister meaning to the Billie Holliday/Nina Simone song, “Strange Fruit:”
• Southern trees bear a strange fruit
• Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
• Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
• Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Knowledge of this and the thousands of other lynchings of Black people also give poignant meaning to the flag hung from the window of the former National NAACP Headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue, NYC which read, “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.” That flag flew each day the NAACP received a report of a lynching. At long last, the deaths of those lynching victims is more than a footnote in history. America, and those so inclined, will no longer be able to pretend the awful episode of ‘Lynching in America’ did not happen. The deaths of thousands of innocents whose only crime was the color of their skin will finally be recognized. A memorial will be opened to the more than 4,000 Black people lynched between 1877 and 1950.
It’s been recently announced that the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based civil rights organization, will construct a six-acre memorial to commemorate lynching victims across the South. It will also construct a civil rights museum near the memorial. Both are in Montgomery, Alabama, and are scheduled to open in 2017. In an Associated Press interview, Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, states,” I don’t think we can afford to continue pretending that there aren’t these really troubling chapters in our history. I think we’ve got to deal with it.” The focus and teaching intent of the organization’s museum is reflected in its name – From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
The museum will be built on the site of a former warehouse located near a former slave auction house, and a river dock and rail station from which slaves were transported. I have had an interest in this project for years and admire its focus on the on-going enslavement of African-Americans in contemporary United States. Yes, I said on-going enslavement! If we are to be completely honest, in large measure and all too frequently, we are reminded that, absent slavery, African-Americans are an unwelcomed and disposable commodity.
Our blood, sweat and tears powered the economic engine that made America the most powerful nation on Earth; yet, after more than 400 years here, we can find neither equality of opportunity or the avenue to escape the social and economic deprivation that racial animus fosters. It is my sincere hope that this, and other museums that honor our triumphs, will motivate new generations with the wherewithal to persevere to new horizons. Just as the Jews use their holocaust and their mantra of Never Again! as a force to impose their true value upon circumstance and society, so must we!
Dr. E. Faye Williams is President and CEO of the National Congress of Black Women. www.nationalcongressbw.org. 202/678-6788