Thousands of people spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Montgomery, Alabama, confronting the truth of our history of racial injustice at EJI’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The two sites are part of an attempt to launch a new era of truth and justice in America.
The museum and memorial were built because—unlike other post-genocide countries like Rwanda and Germany—the U.S. doesn’t talk honestly about our history of racial injustice.
We don’t discuss the legacy of the genocide of Native people by Europeans or the legacy of slavery. We lack institutions that are dedicated and focused to making sure a new generation of Americans appreciates the wrongfulness of what we did when we allowed racial terror lynching to prevail and when we created racial apartheid through segregation.
As EJI director Bryan Stevenson explained in an interview on Fresh Air yesterday, it takes a consciousness of wrongdoing—a sense of shame about these horrific human rights violations—to motivate people and institutions to ensure they don’t happen again.
The so-called “Kissing Case” provides a powerful example of how racial bigotry has disrupted so many lives throughout our history, often without an acknowledgment of the harm caused, much less an apology for it.
In 1958, nine-year-old James Hanover Thompson and his seven-year-old friend David Simpson—both African American—were charged with molestation after a white girl kissed each of them on the cheek. Mr. Thompson told his younger brother what happened in a conversation recorded for StoryCorps.
“We were playing with some friends over in the white neighborhood, chasing spiders and wrestling and stuff like that,” Mr. Thompson said. “One of the little kids suggested that one of the little white girls give us a kiss on the jaw. The little girl gave me a peck on the cheek, and then she kissed David on the cheek. So, we didn’t think nothing of it. We were just little kids.”
The boys were arrested and taken to the police station in Monroe, North Carolina, where several officers beat them while they were handcuffed. “They was beating us to our body, you know? They didn’t beat us to the face, where nobody could see it; they just punched us all in the stomach, and back and legs. We was hollering and screaming,” Mr. Thompson said. “We thought they was gonna kill us.”
They were held in jail for about six days before they were allowed to see their parents, and soon after, they were sent to reform school, with a possibility that they might be released before they turned 21.
“The Kissing Case,” as it came to be known, drew international media attention and clemency pleas from NAACP officials and Eleanor Roosevelt. Eventually, after three months in detention, James and David were pardoned by the governor and released.
When James returned home, his sister recalled, he was different. “He never talked about what he went through there. But ever since then, his mind just hadn’t been the same.” The Thompson family rarely talked about how crosses were burned on their front lawn and bullets fired at their house while James was in custody.
“I still feel the hurt and the pain from it,” Mr. Thompson said. “And nobody never said, ‘Hey, look, I’m sorry what happened to y’all. It was wrong.'”
Most people in America know very little about slavery and racial terror lynching. “And that’s why today when we have evidence of bias and discrimination, there’s not a responsiveness to it that there needs to be,” Mr. Stevenson explained on Fresh Air. “Until we reckon with history, we’re not going to be free.”