CN: frank reflections on anti-Black lynching.
Today, the Equal Justice Institute announced a new historical marker in Letohatchee, Alabama, a tiny town 24 miles south-west of the state capital, Montgomery.
Non-Alabamians know Montgomery as the capital of the Confederate States of America during the 1860s and the site of the anti-segregation bus boycott during the 1960s. Today, Letohatchee is a zebra town: more than 7 of 10 residents is Black and almost all of the rest are White.
They have a bloody common history.
As the EJI explains, this marker is the first to tell the stories of seven Black people lynched by mobs of White Letohatchee residents between 1900 and 1917. Police never arrested anyone for these murders. Prosecutors never reviewed these cases. Justice never emerged, and it still hasn’t.
But as of yesterday, a royal blue metal town marker describes the deaths of seven people killed in Letohatchee: two men, one a father; two brothers; a woman, wife, and mother; a son; a daughter. It memorializes the documented murders of seven more.
Title: Lynching in Letohatchee
Credit: Equal justice Institute
It can take 116 years for the truth to become a public fact, a fact like “a clay mining company operates in Letohatchee,” and “Jefferson Davis was once sworn in as Confederate president just a few miles away,” and “this town is only 18 miles long.”
One hundred and sixteen years ago, White Letohatchee residents brutally killed Black Letohatchee residents, “and no one was ever arrested.”
No one will ever be arrested, because the murder victims are dead. The people who murdered them are dead. The state officials who failed to intervene or protect or pursue justice are dead.
Native American activists have argued that there can be no justice without common memory. We have to get specific about what that means. Because in this case, as we remember fourteen people whom White people lynched in Letohatchee and thousands of others murdered elsewhere around the country, some people have simply vanished.
The people who’ve killed other people in the service of racist terrorism and White supremacy have disappeared into our euphemisms to the degree that the subjects and the objects of lynchings almost appear to be the same.
Jim Cook was lynched. The Powell brothers were lynched. But by whom? Who lynched them? We lose the names of these actors in passive verbal phrases and impersonal nouns. Faceless, nameless mobs become footnotes a century and two decades after they’ve vented their fear, hatred, and contempt. The evil they expressed in violent gangs and crowds dissipates with them.
A century and two decades is long enough for pews of White supremacists to marry, have children, start grocery stores, keep farming, buy some land, sell some land, babysit grandchildren who move away for college, and die in peace in the woods. So they did in Letohatchee, Alabama. So they have everywhere in this country.
When entire mobs are absent from common memory, the record becomes a lean-to in time and space, a house with a wobbly termite-ridden floor that could buckle under anybody, and does. When euphemism hinders us from perceiving the degree and scope of violence, the truth we need to build our world on can be buried under hagiographies and face-saving histories. And when we simplify the truth for hymnodic myths, we can all band together and doubt whether those who remember accurately want the peace and unity we long for.
That’s not “common memory.” It’s common fantasy.
We need more testimonies of the lives of victims of lynching in the United States, just like those the Letohatchee community came together yesterday to share. We also need full accountings of the people who killed those victims. Because the full story is the ground we all stand on. It’s the toxic water we’re drinking together. It’s the air we’re breathing, and it chokes us, as it should.
It can take 116 years for the truth to be told, and only when the truth has advocates like the Equal Justice Institute. The truth needs many more advocates. It needs us all.
“EJI believes that truthfully acknowledging this history is vital to healing and reconciliation.” So do I.
So do I.