Throughout the history of the United States, those in power have used violence and fear of such violence to oppress and marginalize people of color. The lynching of over 4,000 black individuals between Reconstruction and World War II is one of the most blatant examples of such racial violence. Communities used lynchings to enforce social, political, and economic segregation. Black activists, community organizers, and the black press resisted this racial terrorism. Yet, governments, the press, and prominent citizens allowed lynching to remain a powerful tool of oppression for nearly a century. As the Equal Justice Initiative writes, “lynching – and other forms of racial terrorism – inflicted deep traumatic and psychological wounds on survivors, witnesses, family members, and the entire African American community.”
EJI’s Memorial to Peace and Justice powerfully conjures the horror of racial terror lynching through the visual display of 800 hanging steel monuments. Those columns also evoke the modern phenomenon of suicide in prison, which occurs at alarming rates in Alabama prisons, nearly always by hanging. In 2016, the suicide rate in Alabama prisons was 37 per 100,000, compared to a national average of 16 per 100,000. Jefferson County native Jamie Wallace committed suicide at Bullock Correctional Facility in late 2016 after having been placed on suicide watch 66 times, most of them at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer. Once incarcerated, Alabama prisoners are subject to deplorable conditions, including a mental health care system a federal judge has ruled to be “horrendously inadequate.”
From the abolition of slavery to the eradication of Jim Crow laws, this country has taken many steps to improve the lives of people of color. Many people have been able to create a better life for themselves that their ancestors could only dream of. However, despite all of the improvements that have been made in our country, the United States still has a long way to go before we reach true equality. Difficult community discussions about this country’s legacy of racial violence, such as those that will take place around Jefferson County’s monument retrieval, are an integral part of this process.