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Not Being Erased: What I learned About Critical Race Theory at the 2018 ABA Annual Meeting

Karren J Pope-Onwukwe


  • Bryan Stevenson's Impact: Bryan Stevenson's powerful speech at the ABA Annual Meeting highlights his work in creating the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the museum, shedding light on racial terror lynching.
  • Maryland's Historical Examination: The article discusses Maryland's acknowledgment of its history of racial terror lynchings, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and addressing such atrocities.
  • Community Remembrance Project: The Equal Justice Initiative's Community Remembrance Project aims to recognize lynching victims by placing historical markers and collecting soil from documented lynching sites.
Not Being Erased: What I learned About Critical Race Theory at the 2018 ABA Annual Meeting

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As Chair of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division, I customarily write an article or column. For this month my thoughts varied from more on Dementia to Black History Month. An article came to my attention which far surpasses any article or column that I might write for this month. It is authored by Karren Pope-Onwukwe and is set forth below. Karren honored me by granting permission to publish her extraordinary work in lieu of my customary Chair’s Column. Read, be enlightened, learn, and be inspired to assure that each of us does what is necessary so that others are not erased.

Thank you,


On August 4, 2018, I attended the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois. I knew that attorney Bryan Stevenson was to be awarded the ABA Medal, its highest honor,  at the meeting of the ABA Board of Governors (BOG). I had never attended a meeting of the BOG but decided on the spur of the moment to attend. 

I knew of Bryan Stevenson as the founder and Executive Director of the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). He is also the author of Just Mercy, which recounts the true story of the case of Walter McMillan, a black American who had been convicted by a jury and sentenced to life imprisonment and to death by the trial judge (applying the doctrine of judicial over ride),  all for a murder he did not commit. Because Attorney Stevenson had represented Mr. McMillan in his appeal and I had read his book about the McMillan case, I was interested in hearing him speak.

I sat in the last row in case I decided to leave early—but I was not ready for what happened next. Mr. Stevenson spoke with eloquence and passion about his family and his work, creating the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. The memorial and museum had both just opened on April 26, 2018, in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial honors 4,000 African Americans lynched in 12 states in the South from 1877 to 1950. The museum tells the history of racial terror lynching, legalized racial segregation, and racial hierarchy in America.

After the speech I was overcome by emotion and couldn't stand. I sat in my seat until almost everyone had left the auditorium, then went up to shake the author’s hand. After greeting him with the refrain he used in his speech, “I am persuaded,”  I told him that every time he used that phrase I was reminded of the scripture, Romans 8: 38-39, and that I did not expect to come to an ABA meeting crying and  shouting “Hallelujah.” After that ABA conference, I felt that I had been pulled into a deluge of witnesses determined not to allow my ancestors lives to be erased. Bryan Stevenson has said, “We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.” I agree.

According to a 2005 Report issued by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI Report), the state where I live, Maryland, is one of eight non-Southern states where lynchings were common.

In 2019, Maryland General Assembly Delegate Joseline A. Pena-Melneyk sponsored legislation that created the first commission in the nation to investigate racial terror lynchings. According to the EJI Report these were violent, extrajudicial public acts of torture and killing that were tolerated by public officials.

The Maryland Commission holds public hearings, where it examines the involvement of state, county, and local governments, and the news media in lynchings. It has concluded that:   

"It is also well documented that county sheriffs and jailers allowed mobs to take men from jail with impunity, county state’s attorneys refused to identify and bring charges against members of lynch mobs, county coroners routinely claimed that the victims of lynching died 'at the hands of parties unknown,' and newspaper coverage of these events helped to perpetuate a culture that condoned and encouraged racial terror lynchings."

(You can read more about this here)

Of the 12 Southern states analyzed, Florida ranked fifth, but had the highest per capita lynchings than any other state. The EJI Report’s data is based on court records, newspaper accounts, local historians, and family descendants. The report documents that most of the victims of lynchings, including both men and women, were killed for minor social transgressions such as stealing, or for demanding civil rights and equal treatment. Even though lynchings were extrajudicial public events and sometimes attended and witnessed by thousands of people, no one was ever held responsible.

In response to these monstrous murders, the Equal Justice Initiative created the Community Remembrance Project that partners with local communities to recognize the victims of lynching. They do this by placing historical markers and collecting soil from the sites of documented lynchings.

My chance attendance at an ABA BOG meeting wound up making a profound impact on my thinking about race relations in America. I lived through integration and was a student who personally participated in the integration of public schools in Maryland. The country survived the national debate over integration of schools—and not without passionate conversation and even some ugly protests, like over busing for example. But the benefits conferred on all students resulting from integration of America’s schools cannot be seriously doubted.

As the controversy around education and public discussion of the issue of Critical Race Theory and its place in American history heats up, I believe that all is not lost. We must not be afraid to examine the common history of all Americans, the good, the bad, and the ugly, because without telling the truth there can be no reconciliation. I believe that just like me, most Americans do not know our country’s true history of racial violence -- because of silence. We cannot remain silent. I believe that we cannot allow this history to be erased, it must be told.

"We believe that understanding the era of racial terror is critical if we are to confront its legacies in the challenges that we currently face from mass incarceration, excessive punishment, police violence, and the presumption of guilt and dangerousness that burdens people of color today." 

EJI Community Remeberance Project