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What a New Museum on Lynching in America Means for Us Today

A jarring new look at lynching in America opened recently in Alabama. Conservatives should care about it.

It’s uncomfortable. A museum and memorial dedicated to the thousands of black people lynched by white mobs in the time between the Civil War and the end of Jim Crow. The jarring, emotional display just opened in Montgomery, Alabama.

What startles about the topic is the lynchings were not just a smattering here and there. But, rather, 4,400 in over 800 counties across our country (not just in the South).

And those are *just* the verified incidents.

Even at that, numbers don’t really tell the tale. The individual stories shock:

The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk: Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.

“…so that her unborn child fell to the ground.”

My God.

Yet, as horrific as the lynchings are, they are not the worst of the racist violence that plagued the South in the post-Civil War era. Readers of Ron Chernow’s recent and powerful biography of U.S. Grant will recall the horror with which President Grant and many other Republicans saw the outbreak of racist, barbarism in the South during Reconstruction. One of the most notable examples was an 1866 massacre in New Orleans.

Yes, a massacre:

The [State Constitutional] convention met at noon on July 30, but a lack of a quorum caused postponement to 1:30. When the convention members left the building, they were met by the black marchers with their marching band. On the corner of Common and Dryades streets, across from the Mechanics Institute, a group of armed whites awaited the black marchers. This group was composed of Democrats who opposed abolition; most were ex-Confederates who wanted to disrupt the convention and the threat of the increasing political and economic power of blacks in the state.

It is not known which group fired first, but within minutes, there was a battle in the streets. The black marchers were unprepared and many were unarmed; they rapidly dispersed, with many seeking refuge within the Mechanics Institute. The white mob brutally attacked blacks on the street and some entered the building.

The white attackers included white policemen and firemen, who bludgeoned and butchered blacks to death on the street and in the Mechanics Institute. By the end 44 blacks were dead, as part of 150 casualties from the violent mayhem. That massacre was just part of the horrific, mob violence in the South that led to marital law as well as infusions of federal troops and law enforcement as part of Reconstruction to attempt to preserve law and order…until the North grew weary of the effort and bargained away the protection of Constitutional rights in a compromise related to the election of Rutherford B. Hayes once Grant served two terms.

Ok, massacres and lynchings in the past are horrible you might say, but why should conservatives care today?

It’s easy to identify that groups (like the Southern Poverty Law Center) and activists (like Jesse Jackson) who regularly raise and publicize issues related to race are firmly left of center and not known for giving conservatives a fair shake. The organizer of the new museum and memorial, the Equal Justice Initiative, has strong feelings on current political issues like mass incarceration and criminal justice reform that don’t align with many conservatives.

Yet, conservatives in theory stand for the rule of law and the protection of Constitutional rights, in addition to inalienable rights such as life and liberty. The tales of systemic lynching and racial subjugation across America long after the Civil War, in ways both overt and subtle, created the culture and history of the violation of those rights that black Americans know, grew up with, and experience.

We don’t have to agree with the all politics of the groups and individuals who promote issues around race today. But, our political concerns with such actors shouldn’t stop us as conservatives from assessing on the merits where our country has failed to live up to our ideals and Constitution.

Condoleezza Rice has said America was born with a “birth defect,” slavery. That horrible and traumatic birth defect was not easily cured by the hard fought Civil War and resulting Constitutional Amendments. Nor was it wholly healed with the Civil Rights movement and the elimination of Jim Crow.

Do we believe in the rule of law? Do we believe in the protection of Constitutional and inalienable human rights?

Can we then accept the better angels of our nature that fought to abolish of slavery could not immediately and fully overcome the concurrent failings of fallen, sinful man that allowed slavery and later Jim Crow to exist?

I think we can.

I also believe if we ever want to start improving our electoral lot with the black community that meeting them where they’re at is necessary…and appropriate. If ever there was ever an issue conservatives should be able to meet the black community, acknowledgement of our nation’s historic failure to honor their Constitutional and inalienable rights, long after slavery was legally abolished, then finding common ground to continue to rectify that error is a damn good place to start.


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