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Racial terrorism in America: Group wants to honor 4,000 lynching victims with historical markers

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An Alabama-based civil rights organization found that over the course of the South’s turbulent racial history, some 4,000 people are known to have been lynched.

The New York Times reported that the study by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is the most exhaustive of its kind and the historian behind it, Bryan Stevenson, believes that the sites of known lynchings should be marked and preserved as a visible reminder of the South’s history of racial violence.

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On Tuesday, the EJI released “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” a comprehensive history of racially-driven murders by mobs of Southern whites. The study took five years to compile and entailed 160 trips by EJI representatives to lynching sites across the American South.

The report contains the available records of 3,959 “racial terror lynchings” in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950. The report contains an interactive map for readers to study when and where over the course of 73 years these types of murders took place.

Stevenson intends to make these killings a matter of public record. The EJI is in the process of selection and prioritizing which lynching sites will receive historical markers first.

“Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics and social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century,” Mr. Stevenson said.

Blacks who fled the South during the lynching and terror years, he said, were not just looking for work, they were fleeing from terrorism.

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The Times said that prior to Stevenson’s list, the most extensive history of lynchings had been compiled by sociologists Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck in 1995, although attempts to record the crimes go all the way back to 1882.

Beck, a professor at the University of Georgia, told the Times, “If you’re trying to make a point that the amount of racial violence is underestimated, well then, there’s no doubt about it…What people don’t realize here is just how many there were, and how close. Places they drive by every day.”

Beck underscored a point that Stevenson’s new report makes, that in no way were these acts of mob violence any kind of exercise aimed at achieving vigilante justice, they were a means of terrorizing the black community and keeping them in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

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Oftentimes young black men were burned alive for the entertainment of an entire town’s white population. Thelma Dangerfield — treasurer of the Paris, Texas NAACP, told the Times about the 1893 killing of Henry Smith, a black teenager who was accused of murder.

Thousands watched as Smith was paraded through the town on an open float, then taken to a scaffold, tortured and hanged.

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In 1920, a pair of brothers were tied to a flagpole and burned alive in the middle of the city fairgrounds.

“There were two or three blacks who were actually around during that time, but you couldn’t get them to talk about it” until recently, Dangerfield said.

She said it hadn’t occurred to her to ever erect a historical marker.

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“It would be a fight,” she said. “Someone is going to have some resistance to it. But you know, I think it wouldn’t hurt to try it.”


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