“I think we do need truth and reconciliation in America. But truth and reconciliation are sequential. You can’t get to reconciliation until you first tell the truth.” – Bryan Stevenson
My dad was born and raised in Kennett, Missouri, the largest town in the Missouri Bootheel located just across the Arkansas border and not far from the Mississippi River. He was born in 1920, over four decades before singer-songwriter, Sheryl Crow, Kennett’s most famous native.
I don’t know much about my dad’s childhood years but have never forgotten a haunting story he told of witnessing the lynching of a black man on the courthouse lawn for allegedly raping a white woman. Children were not supposed to be there, but my dad wiggled his way to the front while the crowd was shamefully mesmerized by the spectacle of a human being with a noose around his neck being asked if he had any final words. The man answered, “Well, I didn’t do it, but I know that doesn’t make any difference to you all.” And then he was killed.
I don’t remember my dad telling the story with any particular emotion so I’m not sure why he shared it with his young son over fifty years after the fact, but it was obvious that it had made an impression. And here I am almost another fifty years later telling it again. If you wonder how far we have to go back to find race-motivated lynchings on a courthouse lawn, for me it is one generation.
I think Bryan Stevenson is a remarkable human being and encourage you to read/watch/listen to him in any way that you can. Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (“EJI”) in Montgomery, Alabama, and among many wonderful projects had the idea of telling the truth about lynchings in the United States. EJI published a report titled, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documented over 4,000 lynchings between 1877-1950—a period of time after, of course, the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the other Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. I looked at the map and noted zero lynchings identified in Dunklin County, Missouri, where Kennett is the county seat. I know a man who witnessed one, so I can only imagine how many race-motivated lynchings actually occurred.
Stevenson’s message is that we must tell the truth before we get anywhere on racial reconciliation, so on a day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I will use my small platform to say that my personal heritage includes a history and ongoing legacy of things we can be proud of alongside things for which we should be deeply ashamed. We cannot honestly claim one without the other. And among those things that require deep shame is nothing less than domestic terrorism that targeted a particular race of people motivated by white supremacy.
May we tell the truth. May we lay markers so that we never forget. And may we recommit to the pursuit of Dr. King’s not-yet-realized dream.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963)