The Equal Justice Initiative believes that reconciliation between blacks and whites cannot be achieved without honestly confronting history.
The 25-year-old nonprofit organization in Montgomery, Ala., represents indigent criminal defendants and prisoners, including juveniles and death row inmates, and has also helped communities hurt by poverty and discrimination.
“Five years ago, we decided it was time to start a project on race and poverty that would allow us to deal more directly with the legacy of racial inequality and structural poverty,” said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director. The goal was to change the conversation about race across the country, he said.
To that end, last year EJI erected historical signs in Montgomery about the slave trade there. The program also aims to bring attention to the “era of terrorism” from the end of Reconstruction to World War II.
While lynchings occurred in all parts of the country, Stevenson said, EJI wants to focus on Southern states where it served a purpose wider than mob justice. The terror created by lynchings made segregation possible, he said.
“Some older African-Americans are offended when people talk about 9/11 as if it was the first terrorist attack in the United States. Exposing that is really important to us,” he said.
Just the threat of a lynching led many blacks to flee from the South to Northern states. Lynchings in Virginia occurred in small towns such as Waverly, larger ones including Warrenton and Culpeper, and in cities such as Alexandria and Roanoke.
By erecting markers or monuments, “we want to memorialize, we want to monumentalize and concretize lynching and the places where lynchings took place,” Stevenson said.
Creating a visual history of lynching will force communities to deepen the conversation about racial inequality.
“We’ve been to about 114 communities doing preliminary work on the lynching project,” he said. The communities stretch from Virginia to Texas.
EJI researchers take photographs and scour old newspaper stories, documents and other archives trying to assemble the most accurate information available. Frequently, he said, they have found that lynchings are not included in history books even if they were pivotal moments in the community’s development.
“My hope is to, in 2015, really begin to erect some of these monuments in communities where we’ve had some conversations with folks about the importance of confronting that legacy,” he said.