“Son, if you hear someone talking about the president, I want you to keep walking,” my grandmother instructed me.
“Why, grandma?” I asked.
“I don’t want anything to happen to you,” she explained.
I’ve always found motivation from the fight of generations before me.
When I go to locations connected to the struggle, my social media posts include, “I don’t take for granted when I’m able to visit places that mark the history of our collective struggle. I know that it is because of them that I am. I give thanks to the spirit of history and their courage.”
But when I attended the grand opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace & Justice last month, this notion seemed hardly enough to mark the place and its meaning.
Even a month after visiting, I’m unsure if my reflections will come from a place of rage, soberness or redemption.
My grandmother was born in 1918. She was 94 in 2012 when she told me, “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Even in the era of the first African-American president, my grandmother was afraid for my safety.
Her fear didn’t come out of thin air, but even a lifetime of hearing her experiences and reading books about lynchings didn’t grab me like visiting the lynching memorial. Seeing the states and counties with the names of individuals engraved in the stones shook me.
They started off near the ground like tombstones. The deeper I got into the memorial, the more I had to lift my head to read them. The names were hanging, literally hanging. I could hear Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” playing in my head.
It took me a while to even recognize that the stones were organized by states and in alphabetical order by county. Immediately my eyes locked in on Georgia, and there it was: my home county, Jenkins County.
At that moment, they became more than names hanging. They were no longer statistics; they were the black and brown bodies of victims on display from my place of birth.
EJI researchers documented 4,075 racial terror lynchings of African-Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia between 1877 and 1950.
How ironic that in the same week of the grand opening, we lost the father of black liberation theology, James Cone.
It was Cone who introduced many to the plight of Jesus being in line with the plight of the oppressed.
It was also Cone, in his book, “The Cross and The Lynching Tree,” that identified the tie between the dominant symbol of suffering in the spiritual world of Christians – the cross – and the dominant symbol of suffering in the 20th-century for African-Americans – the lynching tree.
Cone wrote, “What is most ironic is that the white lynchers of blacks in America were not regarded as criminals; like Jesus, blacks were criminals and insurrectionists.”
Some ask why the museum and memorial are necessary. Lynching is in America’s past, yet all I could think of is how similar it still is to the present.
These hanging stones represent bodies of human beings who were executed, many of them without a trial, all based on the color of their skin.
How many black and brown bodies have we seen on display left in the streets of the U.S. at the hands of police brutality? No trial, mostly unarmed except for the perceived threat of their skin color.
Yet again I hear Holiday’s lyrics, “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruits hanging from poplar trees.”
Although those lynchings occurred in the South, it was a problem for the United States, just as it is today.
Sadly, even after Jesus dying on the cross and black bodies hanging from trees, our nation still has not redeemed its relationship with the oppressed.
Charles Watson Jr. is the associate director of education at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. He is a native of Millen, Georgia, a graduate of The Citadel and earned a master of divinity degree at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. You can follow him on Twitter @CEWatsonJr.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on racism and the local church.
Previous articles in the series are:
Recognizing Hidden Racism’s Grip on Our Society by Ryon Price
When Will Churches Begin to Reflect Racial Diversity? by Timothy Peoples
Engaged Advocacy: Working Together for Racial Justice by Stephen K. Reeves
The Church Will Never End Racism by Ignoring It by Starlette Thomas
Royal Wedding Lesson: Becoming an Intercultural Church by Chris Smith