Thousands of Confederate monuments dot the South and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It's nice when something pops up, as Paul Harvey used to say, to tell the rest of the story.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice formally opened April 26 near the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is a stark documentation of the number of human beings killed in the South during the sad and sorry era known as Jim Crow.
Primarily, the memorial documents lynchings.
The Equal Justice Institute, a non-profit lawyers' group dedicated to overturning unjust convictions, is the organization behind the memorial.
It documented more than 4,400 cases of individuals being hanged by vigilantes in the Old Confederacy between 1877 — when the last federal troops pulled out of the legion — and the last documented lynching, in 1941.
These non-judicial executions were carried out by lawless bands, some connected to the Ku Klux Klan, others ad hoc. Often, the victims were not only hanged, but also burned, castrated or flayed alive. (The flecks of skin were often saved as souvenirs.)
Some of the victims were white, most notably the Jewish mill manager Leo Frank, who was pulled from a jail and lynched in 1915 outside Marietta, Ga.
The overwhelming majority, however, were African-American men. Their "crimes" included such offenses as holding a photo of a white woman, trying to vote or generally acting "uppity."
The perpetrators of these crimes generally were never punished, nor even brought to trial.
These weren't just sadistic homicides. They were deliberate acts of terror, meant to frighten the black population into toeing the line of Jim Crow segregation and low-wage labor. Tote that barge, lift that bale, or you might wind up as some of the "Strange Fruit" from Billie Holiday's harrowing song.
Tar Heels can tell themselves thank God for Mississippi or Alabama. The death toll from lynchings in North Carolina was 123 in that seven-decade period, according to EJI. (They count a few more cases than official sources, but their research appears solid.) North Carolina's toll was lower than some Deep South states.
According to the memorial, 22 people were lynched in New Hanover, more than in any other North Carolina county. Alamance County had one reported lynching – the infamous lynching of Wyatt Outlaw.
It is shocking to be confronted by the raw, bare numbers.
It is not enough, either, to claim these things all happened long, long ago. The after-effects of that terror still poison race relations in this region and hinder progress.
They make a hollow lie of our preachments to other nations about the war on terror. Terror made a home here for a long, long time.
We can't bring the dead back to life. Nothing can make this right. We can, however, do whatever we can to treat each other as human beings — and never to forget the many times we did not.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
—Abel Meeropol, written under the pen name Lewis Allan. First recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday.