Just about every American knows the importance of 1776, when 13 colonies declared their independence and created a democratic experiment unlike any other in world history. We will celebrate the 242nd anniversary of that event on July 4 with hot dogs and bathing suits and furniture sales.
Too few Americans, however, know about what happened one hundred years later, and how it changed the trajectory of this country in ways nearly as profound. It was 1876, the year Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, Congress and the Supreme Court compromised to settle a tight election. Hayes became president. Tilden’s wish, and that of other white Southerners, that federal troops be removed from the South, was granted. It came just four years after Congress had restored full civil rights to Confederate leaders, making them eligible to hold office again.
The compromise set the stage for white mob rule that resulted in more than 4,000 lynchings and the unleashing of violence-backed Jim Crow. It also helped launch a devastating convict leasing system that marked the beginning of racial disparities in the criminal justice system that remain today. It was the end of an enormous amount of progress made by former enslaved Africans during Reconstruction.
There were at least 123 lynchings in North Carolina and 185 in South Carolina between 1880 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that fights mass incarceration and racial injustice. New Hanover, N.C., tied for the 15th-most active lynching county in the nation.
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EJI believes an unflinching grappling with that history can help the country better understand – and heal – racial wounds that still fester. Those wounds have been reopened the past couple of years with the increasing public presence of emboldened white supremacists and fights over public Confederate monuments. That hope for healing is why the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice are opening this week in Montgomery, Alabama.
Among the victims the museum honors are thousands who may remain unknown. Some were burned alive; some had their lifeless corpse sprayed with hundreds of bullets. Some died for the sin of demanding racial equality or daring to vote. Others were hanged after being falsely accused of raping white women, or even talking to them. Others were murdered for refusing to work for white farmers who treated them like slaves. One victim, Mary Turner, was lynched in 1918 in Lowndes County, Georgia, after she complained that her husband had been lynched.
Such acts were widely accepted. Members of media outlets, as well as local, state and federal law enforcement officials either participated in those horrors or did little to stop them.
A Paris, Texas, lynching is documented by the museum: “On July 6, 1920, a mob of 3000 gathered to watch as [two] men were tied to a flagpole at the fairgrounds, tortured, and burned to death. … [Their] sisters were jailed under the pretense of protection but then beaten and gang-raped by more than twenty white men.”
It’s not easy to acknowledge such things. But the truth, no matter how gut-wrenching, can set us free – and maybe the only thing that can.