It’s no secret that the terror of Jim Crow claimed thousands of African-American lives by lynching; it’s a history many in our country wish to forget and was the main impetus for a study released Tuesday aimed at reclaiming that past.
The study is a 73-year survey inventorying all the African-American victims of “racial terror lynching” in the Deep South between 1877 and 1950, the heyday of Jim Crow. Conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative out of Montgomery, Ala., the report documents the deaths of 3,959 African-American lynchings in 12 Southern states, including Louisiana, over that 73-year period. In fact, Louisiana was among the states with the most lynchings, according to the study, falling shy of Georgia’s 586 lynchings and Mississippi’s 576 with 540 known cases. For Louisiana, that amounts to a per capita rate of 0.475 percent per 100,000 residents.
The study also ranks the top 25 counties, or in our case, parishes, with the highest number of lynchings. Once again, Louisiana parishes dominated the list, including second-ranked Caddo Parish (54 lynchings), third-ranked Lafourche Parish (50 lynchings), fourth-ranked Tensas Parish (40 lynchings), fifth-ranked Ouachita Parish (35 lynchings), seventh-ranked Bossier Parish (32 lynchings), twelfth-ranked Iberia Parish (23 lynchings), and Tangipahoa Parish (22 lynchings), which tied for the thirteenth highest ranking with Mississippi’s Hinds County.
It’s a sad and uncomfortable history, but it’s our history, America’s history. It's also the cause célèbre behind the Equal Justice Initiative’s effort to shine a brighter light on how widespread lynching was in the Deep South in the years between the Civil War’s end and the start of the Civil Rights Movement. The study is also part of a broader effort — one that is the brainchild of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson — to cast a brighter light on African American history in the period described by the Alabama activist as the post-Civil War "terror era."
“Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics and social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century,” Stevenson tells The New York Times.
The problem, however, is that now in the 21st century, there’s little evidence of what was happening just 60 years ago in the American South. Countless Civil War battle markers can be seen along roadsides throughout the southern states. But that's not so for the sites of African-American lynchings. Along with Tuesday’s study — considered the most accurate account to date of the number of southern lynchings (the Equal Justice Initiative discovered 700 new cases that had not been counted in previous efforts conducted over the last hundred years or so) — Stevenson is also pushing for the erection of historical markers at lynching sites. Only a handful exist, and for the few that do, Stevenson says they didn’t come without a fight, which shouldn't come as too big a surprise considering how many white southerners during those days would defend the practice arguing it was their "Christian duty" (Slate just posted a great piece on this here).
Local resistance has certainly been one of the issues Stevenson has faced in his efforts in recent years — an attempt to put up historical markers at the site of what once was a slave market in Montgomery, though successful, initially elicited push back from local officials. But another big roadblock has been apathy — people either not knowing or not caring enough to join the fight to shed more light on the lynching terror faced by southern African-Americans.
However uncomfortable it may be though, it’s our history and it needs to be known, remembered, and yes, memorialized for all to see.