Thousands of black people in America were murdered between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Some were hanged or shot. Others were beaten to death or burned alive.
The attacks were called lynchings.
Most of the murders took place in the American South. More than six million African-Americans fled north as a result. Very few of the killers were officially charged with the lynchings. Those who were charged were rarely punished.
Now, a memorial has opened in Montgomery, Alabama, to remember that dark time in American history.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a project of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative. The organization says the site is the nation’s first to document racial inequality in America from slavery to the issues of today.
Bryan Stevenson leads the EJI. He said, "In the American South, we don't talk about slavery. We don't have monuments and memorials that confront the legacy of lynching. We haven't really confronted the difficulties of segregation.”
Stevenson said the United States is still troubled by the history as a result.
The memorial brings to mind the image of a racist hanging. Hundreds of brown metal rectangles are suspended from the ceiling of a large outdoor site. The 800 objects represent 800 areas of the United States where lynchings were known to take place. Each rectangle is about two meters tall, around the height of a person. Each includes the names of known lynching victims, around 4,400 in all.
The lynchings took place between 1877 and 1950.
Visitors enter the site at eye level with the monuments. As they walk down into the site, the rectangles seem to rise higher and higher above them.
Identifying as many victims as possible was very important.
Stevenson said, "Most people in this country can't name a single African-American who was lynched between 1877 and 1950 even though thousands of African-Americans were subjected to this violence.”
The EJI says one idea was common to lynchings that made them different from other murders overlooked by the law: They demonstrated a desire to terrorize minorities and protect white rule.
Some lynchings drew huge crowds and were even photographed. However, police and other officials usually ruled that they were carried out by “persons unknown.”
The memorial and a joint museum nearby tell a story that covers slavery, racial separation, violence and today's overcrowded prisons. The United States has almost 7 million people in prison or on conditional release. The rates of minority imprisonment are much higher than imprisonment rates of white people.
E.M. Beck is sociology professor emeritus at the University of Georgia. He has studied lynching for 30 years and has written books on the subject. He said the memorial might understate the amount of lynching, even though it lists thousands of victims.
"I think it's an underestimate because the number and amount of violence in early Reconstruction in the 1870s will probably never be known,” he said. “There was just an incredible amount of violence taking place during that period of time.”
The EJI searched old newspapers, libraries and court documents to find the stories of lynching victims. The metal monument is a memorial to all of them, with room for names to be added as additional victims are identified.
Many people cried during their visit to the memorial.
Toni Battle had three ancestors who were lynched. She travelled more than 3,700 kilometers from San Francisco to attend the opening.
“I wanted to come and honor them and also those in my family that couldn’t be here,” Battle said, as tears fell from her eyes.
Angel Smith Dixon came from Lawrenceville, Georgia. She said the memorial marks the first time the nation has publicly mourned the tragedy of lynching.
“You can’t grieve something you can’t see,” she said.
That is the first step in healing, she added.
The crowd included black and white visitors.
Launch events included a “Peace and Justice Summit” with celebrities and activists like Ava DuVernay, Marian Wright Edelman and Gloria Steinem.
I'm Caty Weaver.
The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English.Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Words in This Story
confront – v. to deal with (something) in an honest and direct way
legacy – n. something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past
segregation – n. the practice or policy of keeping people of different races, religions, etc., separate from each other
rectangle – n. a four-sided shape that is made up of two pairs of parallel lines and that has four right angles
grieve – v. to feel or show grief or sadness
celebrity – n. a famous person