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Remembering Lynching

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The Equal Justice Initiative has researched a new history of lynching, documenting nearly 4000 lynchings in the South, including attempts to find the precise locations where they took place. The hope is thus to memorialize these spots with historical markers and other forms of interpretation. That can be powerful–after all, if that tree right over there and that particular branch even once held the body of a lynched black man, well, that’s a pretty strong statement of how near the history of lynching is to us today. So I fully support these efforts.

It is totally understandable that this project is only focusing on the lynchings of African-Americans in the South. After all, it is run by African-Americans in the South. However, this is far from the full story of lynching in American society, even if it often gets framed that way. After all, Malcolm X’s father was possibly lynched in Lansing, Michigan (and even if it really was an accident, his family was severely harassed in several states). And the American West is full of racially motivated lynchings against Mexicans, Native Americans, and African Americans. Leaving these incidents out of the history of lynching is problematic because it reinforces the idea of racism as a southern problem and covers up a lot of horrible crimes committed in left-leaning places today. There are some attempts to alleviate this loss of public memory, such as this walking tour of lynching sites in downtown Los Angeles (I believe a reader brought this to my attention). That doesn’t mean the EJI attempt to memorialize these lynching sites shouldn’t go on, only that I hope there is equal attention paid to lynchings in New Mexico and Wyoming as in Louisiana and Alabama.

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