May 10, 2002

South revisits ghastly part of past


For more than a century, the nameless, faceless men and women who died hanging from trees, bridges and platforms erected on the town square have haunted the South like sleepless ghosts. Finally, they have found a resting place--near the tomb of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Photographs from a bygone era of people such as Frank Embree, Laura Nelson, Leo Frank and others who were lynched by White mobs between 1882 and 1968 have reopened one of the darkest chapters of America's past. Now, the South has been forced to look into the eyes of its brutalized victims and confront the atrocities it has long tried to forget.

The South did not initially welcome them with open arms. Public institutions in Atlanta shied away from the controversial collection, "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," diverting it to museums in New York and Pittsburgh. Last week, after a year of community forums and planning, the exhibit featuring 36 photographs debuted at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site on Atlanta's Auburn Avenue, the belly of the civil rights movement.

"Lynching is one of those occurrences in American history that in some ways defines the nation, and how we deal with these difficult instances of terrorism and racism gives us more insight into who we are today," said Joseph Jordan, the exhibition curator. "So when people talk about the inability to understand why you have atrocities happening today and why people are still victims of racial violence, the exhibit shows that it is not so far removed from us. This is what we have always been and what we always struggle to overcome."

In the last decade, America, and the South in particular, has embarked on a soul-cleansing mission to purge itself of the relentless albatross that divides the races. The South is revisiting painful events of its past and laying to rest long-unresolved offenses that have negatively defined the region.

Cases being reopened

While calls for slave reparations have largely been ignored, unsolved murder cases are being reopened and former Ku Klux Klansmen are facing trial on charges of killing activists during the civil rights era. In 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted in Mississippi of the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

On Monday, trial will begin in Birmingham for Bobby Frank Cherry, the last of the former Klansmen suspected in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four black girls were killed. Two other men already have been convicted.

Two years ago, a commission appointed by the Oklahoma Legislature completed an investigation into the 1921 Tulsa race riots by acknowledging that more than 300 blacks were killed and recommending reparations for survivors still alive. It was a victory for blacks who had long sought to reveal a widespread cover-up and the expunging of records.

"There is a new political reality in the South, and the implication of that is that people have to be more accountable," said Bruce Wade, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Spelman College in Atlanta. "On one hand, this is a painful time to bring up discrimination and racism, but we can see our pain is similar to that in other parts of the world. It's never a good idea to ignore history and pretend it never happened."

4,743 lynchings in 86 years

The photo exhibit is a snapshot of the 4,743 lynchings in the United States between 1882, the first year for which statistics were kept, and 1968, when the last official report was made. About 3,500 of the victims were Black. Lynchings took place in every state except four, but they were concentrated in the Cotton Belt--Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana.

The chilling images vividly depict the lynching scene, from the frightened eyes of the victims, often stripped, beaten and castrated for acts as simple as speaking to a White woman, to the smiling faces of the spectators--children, churchgoers and law officers--who gathered for the killings that provided entertainment as much as vindication. In the end, the victims were often taken down from the noose and set aflame.

"Many people have downplayed the significance of those events or tried to deny that they happened at all. Exhibits such as this serve to jog our collective memories," said Michael Eric Dyson, the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University. "In the post-9/11 debate, we should talk about all kinds of terrorism. Lynching is a flagrant example of terrorism in our racial history."

For James Allen, the white Atlanta antiques dealer who owns the collection, it seemed natural that the exhibit should open in Atlanta, the unofficial capital of the South. But the city initially turned its back.

"As in slavery time, Reconstruction and in 21st Century America, the notion of our country as an industrious home of liberty and superiority over countries (is) based on myths and constantly promoted falsehoods," said Allen, who has collected the snapshots and postcards for more than a decade. "Atlanta advertises itself as a city too busy to hate, but really it is too busy to tell the truth. There is so much money and power hoarding in the White community that they are scared to death. If the King site had not come forward, we would have had to rent a warehouse somewhere."

Emory University, which has held the collection on loan from Allen since 1997, was initially cautious about sponsoring the exhibit. Though the items had been available to scholars, Emory had its own issues when it came to its relationship with the Black community.

There were concerns that the exhibit could be inflammatory or that "perpetrators of the culture" might find the images a cause for celebration, according to Rev. Theophus Smith, an associate religion professor at Emory University. After all, the photographs had been made into postcards and circulated in the U.S. mail.

Wary of `voyeurism'

"We thought the images could play into a kind of voyeurism that we did not want to be party to. And we didn't want to exploit the victims, to do again what had been done to them before--use their bodies as objects for inhumane and dishonorable purposes," said Smith, who headed the advisory committee to determine if and how the exhibit should be shown. "The Black faculty . . . was aware that we have an image as a white, Southern, private Methodist university and the historical baggage of being this big institution that does whatever it wants without consulting anybody."

Emory set out to get feedback. For a year it held public forums, where people voiced their concerns, and ultimately developed a format for showing the pictures. Seminars, educational materials for schools, an interfaith memorial service, lectures and panel discussions about the social impact of the Jim Crow South accompany the exhibit.

The final hurdle was crossed last year when the National Park Service, which owns the King historic site, offered its museum. King's widow, Coretta King, and the families of lynching victims attended the opening ceremony in the rose garden, across the street from the reflecting pool and eternal torch at King's gravesite.

Visitors stroll through the dimly lit gallery with black walls illuminated by pinpoint lighting. The somber mood begins in the hallway, as Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit," the theme song of the anti-lynching movement. Inside, the recordings of a gospel choir replace her music.

The exhibit includes old newspaper clippings and the stories of anti-lynching crusaders such as Ida B. Wells. A short film offers pictures of the lynchings and a historical overview. At the end of the exhibit, there is a "reflect and respond room," where visitors can write down their feelings or express them online.

For 64-year-old Mary Johnson of Decatur, Ga., the pictures provided a wake-up call.

"The details are beyond comprehension. That someone could do that to another human being and then laugh about it is beyond belief," she said, sobbing and shaken from the tour.

"This can never be reconciled, but we have to move on. We have to stand up and say we will never allow this to happen again."



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