THE FIGHTS last year over Confederate monuments, many of them still unresolved, suggested that plenty of places have not come fully to terms with the legacy of the Civil War and slavery. So it may seem fanciful to imagine Americans would easily forge a consensus on symbols of another excruciating chapter in the nation’s racial history: the horrific, decades-long epidemic of lynching that claimed the lives of more than 4,000 African Americans.
It’s time they do.
A brand-new museum and memorial in Alabama, dedicated to shining a floodlight on America’s history of subjugating and terrorizing black people, has thrown down a gauntlet to the more than 800 counties where lynchings took place. Each of them is represented at the museum by a monument — a stylized steel slab, roughly the dimensions of a casket, engraved with the names of the African Americans who were lynched in that locality. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening Thursday in Montgomery, has challenged each of those counties to claim a duplicate of its monument and bring it home for display.
As symbols go, this one is an excellent way for localities — where lynchings often involved torture, dismemberment and other acts of unspeakable violence performed for a mass open-air audience — to reclaim and reconcile with their pasts. Counties should get in line to do so; in fact, about 30 already did before the museum opened.
Many of the counties are in the Deep South, where, in some places, a monument to the victims of lynching, prominently displayed, would provide an apt counterpoint to the Civil War monuments that dot the landscape.
Others are farther north, including in the Washington area. According to research by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, which established the museum and memorial, at least five lynchings took place in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County; three in Montgomery County; and two in Prince George’s County. In Virginia, three African Americans were lynched in Loudoun County and two in Alexandria.
The Post covered some of the lynchings in this region, including one in 1897 in which a mob in Alexandria dragged Joseph McCoy, a 20-year-old black man accused of assaulting his employer’s 9-year-old daughter, out of a police station and to a lamppost a block from City Hall in Old Town. There, a noose was thrown around his neck. As The Post reported, “It took but a second to jerk him off his feet. The crowd broke into a great cheer as the negro was seen dangling in the air. . . . ” Four white men who were part of the lynching party were arrested, then quickly released. They were never tried.
Lynchings, like other forms of terrorism, had nothing to do with justice. Their effects cannot be undone. The best society can do to grapple with that horror is to face it squarely, recognize it, remember it, memorialize it. More than 800 counties across America now have that chance; they should seize it.