Although the United States has just elected a new president whose promise to make America great “again” evoked an unspecified, presumably more glorious past, Americans’ appreciation of their own history, and particularly its most damning chapters, is limited at best.
The country’s long history of racial violence can hardly be denied, but that history is regularly erased from public commemoration. Some civil rights victories are celebrated, but the violence that preceded them is seldom acknowledged.
Aiming to confront and reclaim that history, the Equal Justice Initiative, led by civil rights attorney and author Bryan Stevenson, launched its “Lynching in America” initiative, a yearslong effort to compile the most comprehensive record of racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950. The project includes a detailed report of more than 4,000 lynchings in 12 states in the South, including 800 that were previously unreported, as well as plans for a museum in Montgomery, and an effort to erect markers in the places where lynchings took place.
That the effort has so often met the resistance of local officials is, to Stevenson, just another sign of how urgently this public conversation is needed, as is an honest assessment of the ways in which the racism of the past endures today. Earlier this year, vandals once again shot up a sign marking the site in Mississippi where in 1955 Emmett Till’s brutalized body was found. In December, President Obama signed a reauthorization of the Emmett Till Act, which directs the DOJ and FBI to continue the investigation of cold civil rights-era hate crimes.
To Stevenson and those fighting to promote greater awareness of the nation’s racial history, this is hardly about history alone. Since the November election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented 1,094 hate incidents across the country. But as manifestations of the country’s persistent racism have multiplied, so have attempts to discount it. Shortly after the election, The Intercept spoke with Stevenson about America’s failure to come to terms with its racist past — and therefore its present.
“Lynching in America” was a response to the lack of public memorials commemorating the thousands of African Americans lynched in the country. Your argument is that we can’t move forward if we don’t take stock of this history. Yet this violence is not forgotten — certainly not by its victims and their descendants, but also by today’s racists. Just in the last few months we have seen people show up at football games dressed as President Obama with a noose around his neck, or black freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania being added to a social media account that included a “daily lynching” calendar invitation and photos of people hanging from trees.
There’s no question that there’s a consciousness and an awareness about our history of slavery, and terrorism, and segregation. But that doesn’t mean there’s an appreciation of the significance of that history, and people will invoke elements of that history in a way that is oppressive and bigoted and problematic because there is no appreciation of the significance of that history. Part of our work is aimed at trying to re-engage this country with an awareness and understanding of how our history of racial inequality continues to haunt us. I don’t think we’re free in America — I think we’re all burdened by this history of racial injustice, which has created a narrative of racial difference, which has infected us, corrupted us, and allowed us to see the world through this lens. So it becomes necessary to talk about that history if we want to get free.
Our project is trying to do that. We want there to be some acknowledgement that we’re a post-genocide society, that when white settlers came to this continent, there were millions of native people here whom we’ve killed through famine and war and disease, and that we forced off their land sometimes in cruel and barbaric ways. And instead of acknowledging that genocide we said, “No, those people are different, they’re not really people, they’re savages,” and we used this narrative of racial difference to justify this horrific behavior. That same narrative of racial difference was employed to justify centuries of slavery.
For me, the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude and forced labor, it was this narrative of racial difference. In my view, slavery didn’t end in 1865, it just evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism and violence directed at people of color and this terrorism has profound implications for a range of contemporary issues: the urban North and West, the ghettoes, the relocation of millions of black people into these spaces. Black people in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Oakland did not go to those communities as immigrants seeking economic opportunities, they went to those communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South. That legacy has to be revisited if we’re going to appropriately understand the iconography of lynching, or even the language around the Civil War and the resistance to enfranchisement and emancipation.
Even in the context of civil rights, we focus on the heroism of civil rights leaders without focusing on the intense resistance to integration by white political leaders. And that’s what we’re trying to do: trying to engage this country into a more honest accounting of what it means to be a slave society, what it means to be a place where terrorism and mass atrocities took place, what it means to have been an apartheid country for decades. If we have that appreciation, things will change. We won’t be able to celebrate Jefferson Davis’s birthday as a state holiday — as we do in Alabama — or celebrate Confederate Memorial Day or celebrate Robert E. Lee day without being seen as offending the notion that slavery is wrong. It would be unconscionable for Adolf Hitler’s birthday to be celebrated in Germany.
Your efforts to set up markers of lynchings and other sites of racial violence, for instance by commemorating a major slave market in Montgomery, were sometimes met with fierce resistance by local leaders. Are they actually denying that this history is real?
They are denying it. They are saying, “Slavery was wonderful for black people. The Civil War was about state rights. Black people were treated well during enslavement. Lynching was just tough justice; they were all criminals who deserved lethal punishment. Black people were better off in segregated schools; we just all wanted to be in our own place.” This process of truth telling will push some people to try to deny it. And if there’s not complete denial, there’s certainly no shame. You’d be hard pressed to find anything that looks like a public expression of shame about slavery, or lynching, or segregation.
When we present the history, people have a hard time saying it didn’t happen, they just say we shouldn’t talk about it. When we tried to put up markers in downtown Montgomery, local historical officials said it would be “too controversial” to put up markers that talk about slavery. They didn’t say that didn’t happen, they just said it would be controversial, it would be unsettling, it would be uncomfortable for people to be reminded of slavery even though we have 59 markers and monuments to the Confederacy in the same space.
You argue that understanding this history is essential to understanding not only acts of overt racism and hate happening today, but also the ways in which racism has become engrained in virtually every aspect of our society. Has that narrative of racial difference become institutionalized?
I don’t think there’s any question that our failure to deal honestly with this history has made us vulnerable to tolerating bias and discrimination in virtually every sector. It’s not just the overt acts of hate that we see on campuses — although I think those are a direct manifestation of this. It’s also the way in which you can have the Bureau of Justice Statistics saying that one in three black male babies is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime and nobody cares. That’s not a policy or a political issue that our leaders are talking about. There is a presumption of dangerousness and guilt that gets assigned to black or brown people and people just see that as well, that’s America. We tolerate bias and discrimination and bigotry in ways that we wouldn’t tolerate them if we had a higher shame index about our history.
That certainly is evident in the way we’ve seen some of this rhetoric and demonization of people based on their ethnicity or religion or any of these other things; that’s clearly an example of that. But it manifests in other ways too. That the two largest high schools in Montgomery are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High is a manifestation of this failure to confront history. That people are actually trying to eliminate the Voting Rights Act is a manifestation of this history. That people resent when we talk about bias and discrimination because they think that’s all we talk about is a manifestation of this history. I think it’s hard to find things that are not implicated by our failure to deal with this history more honestly. I really can’t identify many parts of our popular life, our cultural life, our social or political life, that are not haunted by this history of racial inequality.
The openly hateful rhetoric of the election, and then the election’s result itself, have shocked many who might have liked to think this country was “not as racist” anymore. What you seem to say is that this is all very much part of a continuous history that was never truly interrupted?
I think we’re seeing an affirmative use of people’s racial resentment and ethnic resentment to gain power in a way that we haven’t seen before at the national level. I live in Alabama and there’s nothing exceptional about the last election. When you live in places like Alabama, this is the political culture that we’ve seen since the civil rights movement. But at the national level, it’s interesting to see an affirmative use of this kind of racial intolerance, racial resentment, this shameless advocation of America’s great past as a tool for gaining political power. We’ll see how that plays out and what that means.
Are you saying you’re less terrified, because you’re used to it?
I am most worried about the poor and vulnerable people who have had to endure lifetimes of bigotry and discrimination, and who are now going to have to continue meeting those challenges without the possibility of a Justice Department that will protect them, or a federal government that will be attentive to their complaints, or health care, or support systems. There’s a whole host of things that have made enduring the challenges of bias and discrimination in this country a little easier, because of federal programs and because of efforts to try to be responsive. Those programs are now under attack and that will make dealing with the burden even harder. So in that sense, yes, I am worried about the current political future of this nation. But I’m also worried about it in this other sense: I think our identity is shaped not by how we treat the rich, the powerful, and the privileged — we are shaped by how we treat the poor, the incarcerated, the disfavored. And if we say, we only want to be an America for people who have lived here for five generations, we only want to be an America for people who are Christian, and a particular kind of Christian, we only want to be an America for straight people, or white people, then we become a country that is at war with its ideals, with its values, with its principles, with its very Constitution.
Do you agree with the interpretation that this election was a “whitelash” — a white backlash against a changing country and against its first black president?
I think there are a lot of complex factors — I don’t think it can be reduced to any one thing. I certainly think it is a troubling moment in American history when someone can employ this rhetoric of hate and division and bigotry and become elected to the presidency of the United States. I think it is a crisis for America and its identity, its relationships around the world and its relationship with ethnic minorities. Many of us see this as an enormous step backwards, and we’re going to have to figure out how to recover when the nation has done what it has apparently done.
One of the “takes” on the election we have heard repeated in countless ways since November is the idea that, somehow, we talked about racism “too much,” and failed to reach out to growingly resentful white voters. A project like yours is predicated on public discussion. How do you even do that when any attempt to discuss racism is preempted by this aversion to any discussion that’s not about the ways in which whites have perceived a decline in their status and power?
There’s nothing that anybody can point to about the global economy, about trade, about jobs, about declining opportunities that have affected the white working class that hasn’t impacted black people and poor people ten times as hard. It’s not sufficient to talk about the unique challenges of white working class people. Whatever their problems are, they are the same problems that black working class people have, and brown working class people have, and black and brown people are also burdened with a presumption of dangerousness and guilt and a network of other issues. When you have 90 percent of the power and status and it drops to 85 percent, you can use your 85 percent of power and status to complain a lot about the 5 percent you lost, but when you have 5 percent of the status and power and you lose three percent you only have two percent to complain. So there is a disproportionate ability to make your loss, your problems, your struggles seem like the most important struggle, because you have so much more power and status. I am skeptical about this idea that somehow we have done too much to address the challenges of people of color, address the challenges of immigrants, and the challenges of the poor. I just don’t find much evidence of that.
There is a lack of knowledge, and I think knowledge prompts conversation. If you know you live in a city or a county or a space where a dozen people were killed in acts of mass violence, it changes your relationship to that space. If you don’t know it, then it’s never even something you need to think about. The first act is education, bringing to mind and consciousness this history. That’s why we’re trying to do what we’re doing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.