In Charlottesville, I happened by a bright blue plaque on what was until recently Jackson Park, named for Stonewall Jackson. Also until recently, the park featured an equestrian statue of Jackson, installed 100 years ago, after Paul Goodloe McIntire deeded the land to the city on the condition that the grounds would bear no other statue. The installation took place during a Confederate reunion, 56 years after the war.
The plaque was installed in 2019 by the Equal Justice Initiative. It described the 1898 lynching of John Henry James, about four miles west of town. James, an ice cream vendor, was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. The sheriff took him over Afton Mountain to Staunton to deter lynching, but the next day he brought him back by train to face a grand jury. A mob of 150 White men awaited the train at Wood’s Crossing, hauled him off, and hung him from a locust tree, according to an account in the Charlottesville Daily Progress. The mob riddled his body with bullets, and then cut off pieces of his clothing and body as souvenirs. The grand jury posthumously indicted him.
Six days after passing what is now Court Square Park (which no longer contains the Jackson statue), I drove up to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. And burst into sobs.
Informally known as the National Lynching Memorial, the park also is the creation of the Equal Justice Initiative. It sits on six acres on a hill above downtown. At its center is a hollow square structure lined with 800 rust-colored metal boxes, shaped like coffins and suspended from rafters. On each box, representing a county where a lynching took place between 1877 and 1950, are stenciled the names and dates of the more than 4,000 victims EJI has documented in 836 counties. The effect is similar to that of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall: I soon began looking for the boxes representing the dozen counties I’ve lived in. Nearly all of them (in Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, New York, Florida and Oregon) have a box.
I did not want to come to Alabama. I could have gone the rest of my life without traveling in the Deep South again. But here I am, compelled to bear witness and share my experience.
On a bright, sunny Saturday, I walked up Dexter Avenue, excited to stand in front of the church whose pulpit was Martin Luther King Jr.’s from 1954 to 1960. After a reverential pause, I continued up the street and stood in front of the Alabama State Capitol and felt revulsion. Here evil dwelled, and it still dwells.
Quickly that feeling passed, succeeded by the recognition that without dark, there is no light. Had not a string of governors stood in the doorway spewing their hate of fellow beings because of the hue of their skin, the nation would not have watched events unfold here, beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, of which 26-year-old King became spokesman. Congress might not have passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Had not state police beaten peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965, Lyndon Johnson would not have told Congress, “We shall overcome,” and we would not have had the Voting Rights Act.
Down the hill from the capitol is EJI’s brand new Legacy Museum, its design no doubt inspired by the African American History Museum in Washington and for me at least as powerful. The museum describes in words and images our history in four eras: (1) the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, during which 12 million people were kidnapped from Africa and shipped to the Americas, and the 246 years in which 400,000 Africans and their millions of descendants created wealth for White America; (2) racial terror under Jim Crow, in which slavery evolved into contract and convict labor accompanied by lynching, all of which spurred the Great Migration of 6 million Blacks to the North and West; “Segregation Forever,” the period between Brown v. Board and the high water marks of the Civil Rights Movement that ended with the assassination of King and the election of Richard Nixon that marked the beginning of our retreat from equality; and (4) our infatuation with mass incarceration and unequal criminal justice from the street to the courthouse, resulting in one out of three Black men doing time. (The museum doesn’t detail it yet, but Era 5 is the Supreme Court’s determination to roll back civil and voting rights under Rehnquist and Roberts and the wave of voter suppression laws in GOP states.)
Among the exhibits in the museum are, so far, about 800 one-gallon Mason jars containing soil collected from documented lynching sites. The soil from the spot on which the blood of John Henry James dripped is in one of the jars.
I told the guide who took my $5 ticket: If you don’t know what the lynching memorial represents, then seeing it, as I had from the parking lot, has no effect. But I did know. And I recalled the quotation inscribed at the Jefferson Memorial: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.”