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This article first appeared here on the Religion News Service site on April 30th, 2018. You can click here for the full article.


On April 26 America received its first-ever memorial dedicated to the more than 4,000 victims of lynching in this country. Two days later, James Cone, the acclaimed author of “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” died.

The opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., and the passing of a theological legend coincide in ways that provoke thoughts about the spiritual implications of American racism. How do the cross and the lynching tree represent both injustice and redemption? How do we confront the dark truths of our past to create a future that is brighter for all people?

At the lynching memorial, rusted iron columns hang suspended from the ceiling. Each column, numbering about 800 in total, represents a county where a lynching occurred. Many feature multiple names as the number of human beings killed for their color stacks up to create the crushing weight of an undeniable, yet underrepresented, history.

Visitors to the lynching memorial learn that racial terrorists designed lynching as a public spectacle to intimidate black people.

“Racial terror was characterized by extreme violence: victims were tortured for hours before their brutalized bodies were left out on display to traumatize other black people,” one placard reads. It goes on to explain that members of the mob often posed for photographs next to the mutilated corpses of their victims. These horrific displays served as “the primary tool to enforce racial hierarchy” in America.

The memorial reminds visitors that lynching victims are real people, not simply anonymous figures from history. They have heart-wrenching stories such as Luther Holbert who was forced to watch as a white mob burned his wife, Mary, alive before they killed him. Others lynched Elizabeth Lawrence for telling white children not to throw rocks at black children. Lynchers killed Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, for protesting the lynching of her own husband, Hazel Turner. The voyeuristic and violent deaths of these individuals plus thousands more represent the heinous apotheosis of American racism.

The systematic terrorization of black people created indescribable grief in the past and has contributed to the generational trauma of racism today. Against this backdrop of unremitting suffering, black people looked to religion for answers.

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