Margaret Lawson

Throughout my time researching the history of lynching in America, I struggled to understand my place in memorializing the victims of racially motivated violence and inequality. As white woman from Jackson, Mississippi, I spent the majority of my life unaware of the legacy left by slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up thinking that any version of history expanding beyond the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks was “black history,” not my history. Because I lived in a society that never challenged this incomplete narrative, but rather endorsed it, I did not see my ignorance for what it was. Surrounded by symbols of the Confederacy—whether on my state flag or in my own backyard—from a young age I was desensitized to the power of these images. Only now, years later, am I beginning to reflect on why the South has been so slow to address the centuries of trauma endured by its black citizens. This year I was humbled by the opportunity to work with a diverse group of students to document the lives of eight victims of lynching in Tuscaloosa County. This project forced me to focus on the humanity of the victims. These men from Tuscaloosa County and the over 4,000 victims of lynching from across South were real people who had lives and loved ones, who felt pain and fear, and who did not deserve to die tortured and terrorized. That is the reality of lynching. That is the reality of racial violence since the beginning of chattel slavery to our present crisis of mass incarnation. As a white woman, I have to acknowledge my place in this history. If I was born a few decades earlier, I would have been in a position of power because of the color of my skin, and I could have enabled the brutalization of an entire community because of the color of their skin. In recent years, the white community has tried to remove itself from this historic context, disowning responsibility for the preexisting systems of oppression in this country. I am still trying to understand that even though I did not personally architect the path of oppression from slavery to mass incarceration, I am not absolved of responsibility. If you see injustice and choose to ignore it, you are responsible. This project has taught me that people have to learn how to recognize injustice and their own proximity to it. Learning the names of victims, hearing the accounts of family members, and acknowledging the horrific violence used to enforce a culture of fear and subjection were crucial steps to dismantling my false narratives, which romanticized the era of slavery and down played the horrific violence perpetrated by my ancestors. More than that, engaging with the humanity of black victims helped me overcome my desire to escape guilt or responsibility so that I could feel compassion for the people pursuing the basic liberty I all too often take for granted. In the past few months, I have realized the importance of educating people, like me, who might have never been faced with the realities of racial terror in this country. I try to imagine what it would take to convince my past self that there is a direct link between the institution of slavery and the contemporary issues of “mass incarceration, excessive penal punishment, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color.” More than that, I try to imagine what it would take to help white southerners empathize more with the black victims of lynching than they do the defenders of slavery or the lynching mob.