At the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5, President Barack Obama compared the recent atrocities committed by the Islamic State to actions of Catholics during the Crusades and Americans through the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. Not many were happy about this analogy.
His words brought about scorn from both politicians and citizens, who said the president’s words were unjustified and unfactual.
The president’s words evoke history that may seem taboo, but even the dark parts of history need to be recalled so that these evils are not brought about again.
The reality is that Obama’s words weren’t inaccurate. They were so accurate that they caused people to remember that the people in their socio-identities were cruel and evil on the same level as modern terrorists.
Five days after the president’s remarks, and in the midst of all the bickering, the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit centered on providing legal representation to racially discriminated minorities, released a report that arguably deepened the meaning of Obama’s words.
The reported both proved and clarified the magnitude that racism truly gripped the southern U.S. – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia – from 1877 to 1950.
In those 12 states over those 73 years, the Equal Justice Initiative found that 3,959 racial terror lynchings took place, which is at least 700 more lynchings than originally thought by historians. The state of Texas committed 376 – nearly a tenth – of those hate crimes, making it the fifth most lynching-prone state. And McLennan County ranks at No. 18 of all counties with 20 lynchings.
In researching, the initiative did not define racial terror lynchings as events that served as punishment after a trial, mob violence or hangings enacted on non-minorities. The EJI measured only the tragic, inhuman and evil acts that are too often covered up by modern drafts of southern history or justified in modern history-tellings.
EJI’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, is on a mission, with his group’s latest report as a guiding light, to remind the American public of this taboo piece of history. Stevenson originally began this project in attempts to mark lynching sites, but received pushback from cities in Mississippi and the group’s home state of Alabama.
The states and cities that had problems with Stevenson’s efforts claimed that lynchings were not as widespread at his organization is making them to be. But, with this new report, Stevenson has shown that lynchings were not only widespread acts of violence, but proves that they were a larger part of southern culture than portrayed.
This report and Stevenson’s goal to remind us of our true history are important because we must intentionally remember our history to make our future a better place.
It is necessary to remember that we all have the potential to become evil and inhuman like the Islamic State.
These markers might seem like they are glorifying the lynchings, but they should not be there to remember the actions or the actors, but the victims. In addition, a single memorial, like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, is not enough to signify the magnitude of these atrocities.
By not addressing the mistakes of our past, Americans have attempted to erase and forget these ugly events. This is not healthy. To fully understand the true importance of equality and the true power of remembrance, the entire context of history must be in our scope.
Thanks to Stevenson and the markers he is trying to place in remembrance of lynching victims, we can be reminded of our tendencies to evil so as not to repeat these atrocities.