Mamie Lang Kirkland, a survivor of racial terrorism in Mississippi, died on Saturday, December 28, 2019, she was 111 years old.
Mamie Lang Kirkland lived a full life with beauty, grace, courage, faith and love. She survived childhood illness and racial terrorism in Mississippi, racial violence and mob rule in St. Louis, cross burnings in Ohio, two World Wars, and the early death of her husband with remarkable resolve and strength. She raised a beautiful family and had a wonderful career. She had a remarkable, distinguished life and became one of only a few people who could lay claim as a witness to almost the entirety of the 20th century. By any measure she had a complete life; her race was well run. But for Mrs. Kirkland it was not enough, as she would say, “God is not finished with me yet.”
Born in Ellisville, Mississippi, Mrs. Kirkland fled her home in 1915 at age seven after her father, Edward Lang, and his friend, John Hartfield, were threatened by a lynch mob.
John Hartfield later returned to Ellisville against Mr. Lang’s advice and was lynched before a crowd of 10,000 men, women, and children who traveled from across the state to watch as he was hanged from a gum tree alongside nearby railroad tracks, riddled with bullets, and then burned. “That could have been my father,” Mrs. Kirkland reflected at EJI’s 2016 annual benefit dinner.
At the age of 107, Mamie Kirkland traveled back to Mississippi for the first time in a century. She went back to the community where Black people had been enslaved, tortured, and terrorized—a place she’d been forced to flee as a child when racial terror and violence threatened her family.
Her decision to bear witness to the terrorism of lynching, to remember, to pray, and to advance a movement of truth and justice inspired all of us to action. A movement began and thousands of people have now followed Mamie Kirkland’s lead. Hundreds of jars of soil honor victims of lynching at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where more than 650,000 visitors have heard her story.
At age 108, Mrs. Kirkland went to New York City, carefully made her way up stairs to a big Midtown stage, and brought hundreds of people to their feet with an unforgettable speech. She told us to keep fighting, to tell the truth, and to have faith. She became an icon and legend in the work for truth and justice in America and brought tears and joy to all of us with her remarkable courage.
At age 109, Mamie Lang Kirkland traveled to Montgomery, Alabama. She made her way through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice dedicated to victims of racial terror and lynching. She spoke to nearly 2,000 people gathered at the Montgomery Performing Arts Center, urging them to never give up. It was the highlight of a three-day gathering of 25,000 people working to advance racial justice in America.
At the age of 111, Mamie Lang Kirkland has passed but her spirit is still strong with us. We loved Mrs. Kirkland, her charm, her wit, her strength. We will hear her words as long as we continue this work and will tell her story for decades. She inspires us still. She will be honored and never forgotten.