Are Lynching Memorials a Fitting Remembrance?
ED GORDON, host:
America is filled with monuments commemorating its past and documenting its history, both the good and the bad. But commentator Robin Washington wonders if erecting memorials to lynching victims is the right way to remember this dark time in our country's history.
Mr. ROBIN WASHINGTON (Editorial Page Editor, Duluth New Tribune): The story is all too familiar. A group of black men is accused of raping a white woman. A mob breaks down the door of the jail where they're being held, and three of them are taken to the center of town. Ropes are put around their necks.
That happened in 1920 in Duluth, Minnesota, almost as far north as you can go in the United States. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were murdered. It also happened in 1930 in Marion, Indiana, where Tom Shipp and Abraham Smith were viciously killed. But for whatever reason, a third young man, James Cameron, was let go, even after a noose had been placed around his neck.
My friend, Shahanna McKinney knew him for years until his death recently in his adopted home of Milwaukee. She always called him Dr. Cameron, not just because of his honorary degree, but because of the respect he so deserved for his tireless efforts to tell the horrors of America's past. Those culminated last year when the United States Senate formerly apologized to Dr. Cameron personally for his failure to pass an anti-lynching bill.
His work also lives on in the America's Black Holocaust Museum he founded in Milwaukee. Back here in Duluth, this city also has a memorial to its terrible past. At the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East - the actual site where as many as 10,000 people crowded the corner to participate in the crime -a memorial dedicated in 2003 honors Mr. Clayton, Mr. Jackson, and Mr. McGhie. Here - and not in the rural south - is the nation's most prominent marker to a lynching at the scene of the crime. Though little is known about the men, other than they were traveling circus workers who didn't rape a white woman, they are portrayed with respect.
There are other markers across the country, but not all of them offer healing. A couple of months ago, one was put up not far from Duluth in Iron Mountain, Minnesota, proclaiming First Lynching in St. Louis County. It sounded like it was something to celebrate. It wasn't a black man, but, quote, "a white male jailed for allegedly raping two white girls," according to the sign. It went on to say he admitted to the crime, as if that somehow excused his executioners or precluded the possibility that they had beaten the confession out of him. I'm glad to say the people who put the sign up realized their mistake and have taken it down to rethink it.
There were 4,743 documented lynchings in America between 1882 and 1968, almost 3,500 of them black men. Even if memorials are done with decorum, as in Duluth, I don't know if there should be a marker at every site. Four thousand, seven hundred forty-three memorials in town squares and highway rest stops would be a gruesome reminder across America. But at least 4,743 people were lynched in this country, and they should never be forgotten.
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GORDON: Robin Washington is the editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune, in Duluth, Minnesota.