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Memorializing the Victims of Lynching

The Editorial Board
May 2, 2015

Lessons from Germany

An editorial from the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

Duluth LynchingNEARLY FOUR THOUSAND African Americans were lynched across twelve Southern states between 1877 and 1950. That’s the accounting done by the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Alabama organization led by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, which in February reported on its five years of research.

These lynchings were sadistic, communally instigated, and communally celebrated acts of racial terrorism, whose perpetrators, according to historian Leon Litwack, “were ordinary people, not so different from ourselves — merchants, farmers, laborers, machine operators, teachers, doctors, lawyers, policemen, students... who came to believe that keeping black people in their place was nothing less than pest control...” Lynchings became public spectacles, with people packing picnics and taking photographs. Southern whites can claim no ignorance about these torture-and-murder spectacles: They were widely reported in newspapers, and photographs of lynchings sold briskly.

Nor was lynching confined to the Southern states, as the gruesome picture postcard (at the top of this article) from Duluth, Minnesota makes clear. Only after several brutal murders of African-American World War II veterans — some of them in uniform — did the federal government at last involve itself in investigating lynching — this after decades of risky private investigation by the NAACP and black journalists like Ida B. Wells.

In three instances, it was Jews who were lynched. In 1868, the newly organized Ku Klux Klan murdered S. A. Bierfield, a Russian Jew who ran a dry goods store in Franklin, Tennessee. A supporter of Reconstruction, Bierfield did business with both white and black customers; his black employee, Lawrence Bowman, was shot with him as they both tried to escape the noose. In 1915, a Jewish journalist, Albert Bettelheim, who had been convicted of murder in Georgia, was lynched — just two days before Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil factory superintendant, who had been convicted (by all appearances falsely) of the murder of a young woman, was also lynched after the governor commuted his sentence.

b-stevenson-0410_021_scrsNOW BRYAN STEVENSON, the recipient of a 1995 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” and a prominent campaigner against racism in the criminal justice system, is seeking, with his team of researchers, similarly to name the victims of lynching and establish markers and memorials at lynching sites and slavery sites across the South. He sees this as part of his larger work of raising consciousness about America’s mass incarceration of people of color, what is now widely referred to as “The New Jim Crow.”

One anecdote that Stevenson tells is about a presentation he made in Germany on capital punishment in America. A woman in the audience commented: “We don’t have the death penalty in Germany.... There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings.”

The encounter made Stevenson think: What would it feel like if Germany were executing people, and they were disproportionately Jewish? “It would be unconscionable,” he said in a recent interview in Guernica magazine. Yet “the Old South... the very states where there are buried in the ground the bodies of people who were lynched,” there remains a death penalty — and its application is demonstrably tainted by racism.

Moreover, “We have all these monuments to the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, these Confederate generals who used terror and violence to wrest power back from newly enfranchised former slaves,” Stevenson says, but “when people hear about or see something that is a symbol or representation or evidence of slavery or the slave trade or lynching, the instinct is to cover it up, to get rid of it, to destroy it.” His campaign to establish markers would be a significant step in the ongoing struggle against racism in our country.

220px-Gunter_DemnigIN THIS REGARD Germany might again serve as his inspiration. Since 1997, Cologne artist Gunter Demnig has been installing Stolpersteine, “stumbling blocks,” small cobblestone memorials, in front of the last known residences of victims of Nazism. He creates them for those who died as well as for survivors, and not only for Jews but for Sinti and Romani (i.e., Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Communists, labor unionists, people with disabilities, Christian anti-Nazis, black people — for anyone who was imprisoned in a labor camp, extermination camp, sterilization center, “euthanasia” center, or any other Nazi institution.

There are now more than six thousand Stolpersteine in Berlin, and more than 50,000 across Europe. The project has been embraced in eighteen different countries — and the cost of sponsoring a stone is 120 Euros.

It is our fervent hope that before too long, Americans will be making similar contributions to help erect memorials at the hundreds of U.S. sites where thousands of black citizens were murdered in the name of white supremacy.