Check It Out

The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America

Brooklyn Museum, Now through September 3

July 28, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America opened this week at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, and will run through September 3. The exhibition is a collaboration between the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Brooklyn Museum, and Google. The EJI has done groundbreaking research into the history of racial terror lynchings and mass incarceration in the U.S. and has fought to free wrongly convicted prisoners.

According to the EJI website,

EJI’s multi-year investigation into lynching in 12 Southern states during the period between Reconstruction and World War II documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia between 1877 and 1950—at least 800 more lynchings of black people in these states than previously reported in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date.

In 2017, EJI supplemented this research by documenting racial terror lynchings outside the South, and found these acts of violence were most common in eight states: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

An interactive map in the Brooklyn Museum exhibition details the scope of these atrocities. (The map is also on the EJI website.)

The powerful exhibition features short films with oral histories by descendants of Black people who were lynched. These are heartbreaking. Through their stories, you get a deep sense of how the monstrous crime of lynching has immeasurably affected not only the immediate families of those who died at the hands of white mobs, but of the impact lynching has had on the whole Black community for generations—“embedded terror” in the words of one descendant of a lynched relative.

Mass incarceration is another crime of this system that is highlighted in the exhibition. There’s a film about Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he didn’t commit. Hinton relates what the white detectives said to him upon his arrest:

I don’t care whether you did it or didn’t do it. But I’m going to make sure you’ll be found guilty of it (murder). And there’s five things that are going to convict you. Number one, you’re Black. Number two, a white man is going to say you shot him. Whether you shot him or not, I don’t care. Number three, you’re going to have a white prosecutor. Number four, you’re going to have a white judge. And number five, more than likely you’re going to have an all-white jury. You know what that spell? Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.

The documentary strongly makes the point that the death penalty is an extension of lynching.

In an article in ARTnews magazine, EJI founder and and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson explained, “Imagery is another means of conveying history, but ... efforts were made to explicitly avoid graphic photographs that objectify victims over telling stories of ‘society’s complicity in tolerating terror.’”

Among the artworks in the exhibit are a framed fire hose by Theaster Gates recalling those used against civil rights demonstrators; panels by Jacob Lawrence, which were painted as an extension of his Great Migration series that portrays Black people who fled the horrors of the South and moved North only to find oppression in a different form; and a series of black painted laser-cut steel silhouettes by Kara Walker that includes a burning African village, lynching trees, and a man holding a whip. Besides these, there are works by at least 15 other artists.

The Brooklyn Museum’s web page notes:

After slavery was formally abolished, in 1865, racial terror lynching emerged in the late nineteenth century, and continued until about the middle of the twentieth century, as a vicious tool of racial control, to reestablish white supremacy and suppress black civil rights. The aftereffects are still with us today—from issues of mass incarceration to disproportionate sentencing of people of color....

Throughout the Brooklyn Museum’s history, our exhibitions and public programs have confronted difficult and urgent issues because we believe that great art and courageous conversations contribute to a more just, civic, and empathetic world.

The discourse opened up by this exhibit is more urgent than ever in today’s climate under the fascist Trump regime. If you’re in the New York City area, definitely make plans to experience this extraordinary exhibit.




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