October 22, 2018 Feature

The Constitutional Legacy of Lynching Victim Ed Johnson—Where Are We Now?

By Lise Pearlman

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) boldly painted a challenge to all passersby on the side of its new Legacy Museum, which opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in late April 2018. The giant-sized quote from poet Maya Angelou captures EJI’s aim: “History despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Inside the museum are horrific examples of racist violence over centuries—from forced enslavement of blacks that began in colonial days to miscarriages of justice in today’s age of mass incarceration. Just under a mile away, EJI opened a companion Peace and Justice Memorial on a six-acre site. The Memorial features an imposing structure with 800 suspended steel columns representing all the different counties in the United States where documented lynchings took place between 1877 and 1950. Over 4,000 names are etched into the rusted steel of the columns for sober contemplation by visitors. Most of the incidents were recorded by EJI in its 2015 book, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. Additional efforts have revealed other sites since then; many more have undoubtedly been lost to history.

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