The year 2018 saw catalysts spur the righting of historical wrongs committed against the African-American community such as lynchings and unsolved civil rights cold cases.
This was a historical year for restorative justice strides in the United States.
Discussions regarding the removal of Confederate monuments versus the preservation of history boiled over into 2018 following the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in North Carolina. Paula Giddings, a professor of Africana studies at Smith College in Massachusetts, thinks the root cause of today’s racial tensions is unaddressed hate crimes of the past.
“Sometimes we think about history as this is no longer a living set of words or documents, just about the past. But the past is different from history,” said Giddings. “History is actually a rendering of the past in a way that reflects what people’s values are.”
Anti-Lynching Bill becomes a Priority
Will Schwartz, president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, said there is often an effort to move forward and beyond past hate crimes committed against African-Americans. “People tend to feel that that chapter is over and why can’t we just move on,” he said. “It’s not over, and we can’t just move on.”
Acknowledgment of that history appeared to be the priority of politicians and their constituents in 2018. At the local level, Chicago revisited the city’s historical ties to an egregious crime committed against African-Americans—lynchings. Civil rights icon Ida B. Wells was honored in July after a strip of Congress Parkway was renamed after her, and preservationists revisited their desire to make Emmett Till’s childhood home in Chicago a landmark.
Nationally, nonprofit and political efforts focused on righting the historical wrongs that impacted African-Americans.
Emmett Till Lynching Case is Reopened by FBI
In February, the FBI revealed its decision to reopen Till’s case to Congress. The lynching galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and inspired several pieces of legislation decades after his unsolved murder. The Emmett Till Unsolved Crimes Act successfully closed many cold cases. To expedite the process lawyers undergo to obtain documents for similar unsolved civil rights crimes, Sen, Doug Jones, D-Alabama, introduced the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018. Currently, lawyers are required to file Freedom of Information Act requests.
The bill, which seeks to declassify and release documents and information on unsolved civil rights cases from decades ago, passed both chambers of Congress in December 2018. The measure was signed into law on Jan. 8, 2019.
Margaret Burnham, director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, leads a team of law students through efforts to solve cold cases. In 2017, her team led the Austin Calloway litigation, which resulted in an official apology from the LaGrange County’s chief of police in Georgia for the department’s role in the 1940 lynching.
Burnham considers the police’s formal apology an integral step in correcting the public record. “Until you turn these files over and begin looking closely at them, until you begin to piece together the puzzle by pulling together documents from many different sources and recreating what actually happened, what you do have out there is a lie,” said Burnham.
Adding to the legal acknowledgments of lynchings, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), pushed for recognition of lynchings in social spaces.
In April 2018, the EJI opened the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African-Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.
EJI’s Peace and Justice memorial focuses on lynching incidents and the resulting terror and trauma of the public spectacles. Archive photos and newspaper articles retell graphic details of lynchings, while survivor accounts of the brutality shed light on enduring agony. Civil rights activist James Herbert Cameron’s depiction of his close call with an Indiana lynching mob in 1930 conveys the horrific impact of lynchings that pictures and articles cannot.
“The trauma of these stories affects us all, no matter what our skin color is,” said Laura Gettys, canon pastor for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and leadership council member of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, Tennessee. “They’re uncomfortable stories, but we can’t be healed if we don’t know what to heal from.”
Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Tim Scott introduce Anti-lynching Bill
Last December, Congress made national restorative policy history. After 200 attempts within 100 years, the U.S. Senate finally passed—unanimously—a nonpartisan anti-lynching bill.
Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott introduced the bill in June 2018 to make lynching a federal hate crime. The legislation gained traction in October when it unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Just before taking the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, Booker said in a tweet, “we are poised for the 1st time in over a century – after hundreds of failed attempts – to finally make lynching a federal hate crime.”
Following the vote, Harris said, “by passing this bill we have offered some long overdue justice and recognition to the victims of lynching crimes,” according to a statement.
Before the House could vote on the measure, the new Congressional session began in January. Harris plans to reintroduce the bill in the 116th Congress with the support of Booker and Scott.
Societal Impact of Lynching in the Deep South
Relatives and descendants of lynching victims expressed relief from “long overdue justice and recognition” delivered by organizations such as lynching memorials in Alabama, Maryland and Tennessee.
Michelle Whitney learned of her relation to lynching victim El Persons when the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis contacted her. “It’s one thing to read about lynchings or read about other things that happened in the South, but it’s another thing to know I was actually connected to an individual that it happened to,” she said. “It was difficult for me to resolve that, but I think it was necessary.”
At a memorial for Persons, Whitney met a descendant of one of the lynch mob members. After the event she received an apology, which sparked a cordial relationship. This relationship between the descendant of a victim and a perpetrator is not the first.
The acknowledgment of another lynching formed a tightly knitted friendship between Jacqueline Jordan Irvine and Karen Branan, whose great-grandfather took part in the lynching of Irvine’s relative. “I was just shocked and sad. At the same time, I was happy that I knew something about family that I did not know before,” said Irvine. “Happy in a sense that a puzzle piece had been put together for me.”
The year 2018 saw significant advancements in reconciliation policy. As the 115th Congress comes to a close, Booker, Harris and Scott’s bill is on the verge of becoming law.
John Ashworth, executive director of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, says the passage of the bill into law will send “a message to young African-Americans that my humanity, my citizenship, my personhood actually counts and my elected officials care about me.”
As the bill awaits reintroduction, rumblings of Republican disapproval over language in the bill could disrupt the legislation’s unanimous streak. The National Review reports that a source on the Hill said many Republicans are “uneasy about the coding of ‘gender identity’ as it had not appeared in the original text.”
The advancements of anti-lynching legislation in 2018 marks the year as a paramount time for a more inclusive and holistic American legal system and history. In the age of what many consider a divisive political climate, the push for restorative justice won big in the 115th Congress.
Jessica A. Floyd is a candidate for her Master’s degree at Medill-Northwestern University focusing on politics. You can follow her on Twitter @JessAFloyd.
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