#RuthInAmerica: Looking Away

IT IS A natural human reaction to look away when confronted with injury or suffering. I grab a cushion or duck away behind the closest body when there is blood and gore on television. In this era of mass media where drowned refugee children wash up ashore and onto your screen and where ISIS decapitations flood the internet, this reflex can translate into ‘misery fatigue’, the feeling one wants a break from the constant stream of human misery the media feeds us. But it’s not only the consumers of mass media that feel the need to look away; also those who have been injured often want to escape the memory of the pain.

On my last day in New York, I had the privilege of attending a benefit of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) hosted in Manhattan. It couldn’t have been a better segue into the second part of my fellowship, which started the next day, with the EJI in Montgomery.

At the benefit, EJI’s director Bryan Stevenson presented the Champion of Justice 2016 awards to Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row for a crime EJI would later prove he never committed. I will return to his mind-boggling story another time.
The second recipient of the award was Mrs. Mamie Kirkland, a 107-year old survivor of a lynching that took place in Ellisvile, Mississippi in 1916, when she was 7 years old. Her son helped her onto the stage. With her head just about peeking above the lectern, she related with vividness to an enraptured audience the chilling events that uprooted her life a century ago.

Kirkland said she could never forget what happened that day. She remembered her father coming home and instructing her mother to pack their bags and get the children ready. Crowds had gathered, calling for his and his best friend’s lynching. Her father left immediately, her mother ushered her five children onto a train the next morning. The family made it to St East Louis, Illinois in one piece.  Mr. Hartfield, her father’s friend, however, decided to return to Ellisville, where the threat was carried out: a mob shot, hanged and burned the man, because he had allegedly raped a white woman.
This accusation, Ida B Wells pointed out in her book “Southern Horrors, Lynch Laws in All its Phases (1892), was often barely supported by facts, but rather fueled by the hysterical fear of ‘miscegenation’, basically interracial relationships. She wrote in 1892: “the dark and bloody record of the South shows 728 Afro-Americans lynched during the past eight years.” Only one third of those victims had been charged – not found guilty – with rape. The rest were tortured to death because of a perceived need to protect the ‘honour’ of the white woman. However: “The white man is free to seduce all the colored girls he can,” Wells wrote.

“He could have been my father,” Mrs. Kirkland said of her father’s friend. As she stood there, her petite frame, fragile voice and heart-rending memories were met with quiet sobs and the dabbing of tears by people seated around me.
The family’s ordeal was anything but over after they escaped the lynching. A few years later, they had to yet again face racial terrorism when bloody race riots broke out in Illinois. When they resettled in Alliance, Ohio, it didn’t take long before crosses were burning on their lawn.
“I didn’t even want to see Ellisville, Mississippi on a map,” Kirkland said of her first experience of racial terror, she understandably preferred to not return to the site of such pain and suffering. However, EJI’s research into lynchings, changed her mind.

Aiming to address the lack of commemoration of the legacy of racial terror, the EJI has documented how many lynchings have taken place in the southern states. Last year, they released this report, that provides proof of more than 4000 lynchings – a gruesome figure that is barely included in history books or part of historical remembrance in the South. “Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) (…)People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity.”

In the report, EJI referenced Mr. Hartfield’s case and when Mrs. Kirkland’s son read about it, he contacted them.  Hartfield was his grandfather’s friend whom he had heard so much about. He convinced his mother to return to Ellisville. So, last year, on the spot where Mr Hartfield had been hanged from a gum tree, several family members and EJI attorney Jennifer Rae Taylor (who spent some time with the Wits Justice Project) held hands and prayed together to remember the atrocities both the community and the witnesses seemed to want to forget.
This act of remembering , of not looking away, is central to EJI’s work. In Alabama – the former capitol of the confederacy – the state’s role in the civil war is oft commemorated and remembered, while its role in the domestic slave trade, lynchings and adherence to Jim Crow laws is assigned to the periphery.

During the benefit, Stevenson unfolded ambitious plans to reverse this. EJI wants to build a museum that is dedicated to the evolution of slavery into modern day mass incarceration, captured beautifully in this animated video. Additionally, the organisation intends to erect a memorial site to commemorate the more than 4000 victims of lynchings in the South.

Meanwhile, they have started a more simple, yet very powerful way of remembering the people who were brutally lynched by white supremacists between 1870 and 1940. The organisation is hosting a project whereby members of the community and others can collect soil from the sites of lynchings. The soil will be placed in glass jars with the names of the victims on them. The jars will become part of an exhibition on the legacy of lynchings and racial terror in the United States.

EJI reminds us that looking away doesn’t heal wounds: “Public acknowledgment of mass violence is essential not only for victims and survivors, but also for perpetrators and bystanders who suffer from trauma and damage related to their participation in systematic violence and dehumanization.”

Featured Photo: Mrs. Mamie Kirkland, a 107-year old survivor of a lynching that took place in 1916.

Ruth Hopkins

Ruth is an award-winning investigative reporter who writes about human rights and criminal justice issues. Her latest book, Misery Merchants, Life and Death in a Private South African Prison was published in February 2020. Learn more about Ruth.