This weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, underscore how avoiding honest conversation about our history of racial inequality and its legacy has left us vulnerable to racial bigotry and extremism.
On Friday night, white nationalists, including members of the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi groups, traveled from across the country to Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park. There are hundreds of statues, memorials, and monuments across the American South that celebrate the architects and defenders of slavery as heroic and honorable.
Many of these memorials and monuments were erected to symbolize rejection of Reconstruction and black emancipation in the early 20th century or in the 1950s and 1960s in defiance of civil rights activism aimed at ending racial segregation and Jim Crow.
This weekend’s violence and other recent conflicts over Confederate memorials reflect our failure as a society to commit to telling the truth about our history. EJI believes we cannot reach reconciliation without first acknowledging the truth about our past, and until we confront this history and its legacy, we will remain challenged by extremism and racial bias.
EJI is engaged in several cultural projects to change the landscape in this country by acknowledging the horrors of slavery, lynching, and segregation. In 2013, EJI erected markers that documented the domestic slave trade in Montgomery, Alabama, and gave visibility to a devastating period in American history that too few people acknowledge or understand.
EJI researchers have documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings in the United States, and we are working with local communities to erect markers at lynching sites. EJI’s Community Remembrance Project recognizes the victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites and creating exhibits that acknowledge the horrors of racial injustice.
Next spring, EJI will open the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a first-of-its-kind memorial that recognizes lynching victims and includes monuments that communities will be encouraged to collect and place in their own counties to signify their commitment to truth-telling and healing. Also next year, EJI will open a museum that presents to visitors our history of racial injustice, tracking the evolution of the narrative of racial difference over the decades from enslavement to mass incarceration.
The extremism on display in Charlottesville reveals that the need to engage honestly and hopefully with our past is more urgent now than ever before.