Skip Navigation

The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America

DATES July 26, 2017 through October 8, 2017
ORGANIZING DEPARTMENT Special Exhibition
  • Equal Justice Initiative
    The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

    EJI believes that acknowledging America's history of racial injustice is critical to advancing our nation's collective goal of equal justice for all. As part of an investigation of our national past, EJI conducted extensive research into the violent aftermath of the Civil War, when racial terror and lynching were used to oppress African Americans, despite Emancipation. EJI has documented more than four thousand lynchings of African Americans in the United States between 1877 and 1950, and published the report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, the most comprehensive work on the subject to date. The full scope of that research, as well as the digital content on display in this exhibition, can be viewed at https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report-landing, which features an interactive platform that EJI recently launched with support from Google.

    At the heart of this exhibition are oral histories recorded by EJI, joined with photographic essays, which feature the descendants of lynching victims and those who fled the South during the Great Migration, fearing for their lives. A longer documentary, Uprooted, is also featured.

    Another story told here—the life of a former death-row inmate, wrongfully convicted, who spent decades in prison—reveals how the legacy of racial terror lives on in our country today.
  • EJI Spotlight: James Johnson
    I was an outspoken young boy—very curious, had a lot of questions. Why can’t I drink at this water fountain? Why do I have to go through the back door of white people’s homes? I had a lot of whys, but no one would give me the answers.
    —James Johnson

    James Johnson grew up hearing the story of his relative Wes Johnson, who was lynched in his hometown of Abbeville, Alabama, in 1937. His mother would tell the story as a cautionary tale, warning her son of the life-threatening dangers of being a young black man in America. The injustice of the story and the questions it raised filled Mr. Johnson with confusion. “Having to accept all this stuff,” he said, “it caused me to be very bitter, because I didn’t like the way things operated.”

    These questions persisted throughout his early years, and as the Civil Rights Movement grew, Mr. Johnson saw an opportunity to create meaningful change. Just before the march from Selma to Montgomery, he helped integrate the local Star Cafe, but soon after, his grandmother warned that this activity could get him killed. Mr. Johnson left his hometown, seeking answers that had long eluded him and hoping things might feel different in the North.

    It wasn’t until he graduated from college with a degree in education that Mr. Johnson felt ready to return to Abbeville. There, he became a teacher at the very school he had once been unable to attend due to segregation laws. He started the school’s very first black studies program. “So I ended up back here in Alabama,” Mr. Johnson reflected, “because there was a need to come back to help. It allowed me to be able to give the kids some of the answers that they were searching for that I couldn’t get.”

    James Johnson near his home in Abbeville, Alabama. 2016

    Original photography by Andre Wagner
    Audio story produced by Google for the Equal Justice Initiative; text courtesy of EJI
  • EJI Spotlight: Tarabu Betserai Kirkland
    It’s one of the largest migrations of people in the world, from the South to the North. They were fleeing, basically as refugees.
    —Tarabu Betserai Kirkland

    Tarabu Betserai Kirkland calls Los Angeles home today, but he grew up often hearing his mother’s story about fleeing the South as a young girl. Mamie Lang Kirkland was seven years old when her family was forced to flee Ellisville, Mississippi. “Her father came home after midnight in terror,” Mr. Kirkland recalled, “and told my grandmother, ‘Gather the kids on the first train in the morning,’ but he had to leave now. Put yourself in a situation where you’re seven, you pack up everything you can fit in the two or three little suitcases, and you leave right away.” Her father feared that he and his friend John Hartfield would end up “hanging from a tree” if they didn’t leave.

    The Lang family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, but John Hartfield soon returned to Mississippi. An angry mob accused him of assaulting a white woman and announced in newspapers days in advance that they would lynch him. The governor of Mississippi refused to intervene. On June 26, 1919, Mr. Hartfield was hanged from a tree and then burned before a crowd of ten thousand white men, women, and children. “If the persons responsible were brought to justice, you would need a courtroom that could accommodate ten thousand people,” Mr. Kirkland said.

    The Lang family did not stay in East St. Louis. After race riots erupted there, they fled yet again, this time to Ohio. Recalling her time there, Mrs. Kirkland remembers hiding under her bed while a cross burned on her lawn.

    Today, Mrs. Kirkland is 109 years old. She regularly visits her son in Los Angeles, where he is working on a film about his family’s history, 100 Years from Mississippi. It is a story inextricably linked to the Great Migration and all those who fled as refugees in their own country.

    Tarabu Betserai Kirkland at home in Los Angeles with his mother, Mamie Lang Kirkland, 109, who fled Mississippi at age seven. 2017

    Original photography by Kris Graves
    Audio story produced by Google for the Equal Justice Initiative; text courtesy of EJI
  • EJI Spotlight: Vanessa Croft
    Today, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, his statue is down on Broad Street, Gadsden. Those types of things have an impact on you, generation after generation. Dealing with the same issues, it breeds white supremacy. There is a silent supremacy. They don’t have to do anything or say anything, it has already done its job.
    —Vanessa Croft

    As a child growing up in Alabama, Vanessa Croft often wondered why her Uncle Fred never came south to visit the family, like her other aunts and uncles did. It wasn’t until her dad shared with her the history of Fred’s journey from Alabama to New York in the 1930s that she finally understood.

    One day in the mid-1930s, a group of white men came to the Croft family’s East Gadsden, Alabama, home. Fred Croft was fifteen years old. One of the white men told Fred’s father, Thomas Croft, Sr., that Fred had pushed his daughter off the back porch and he wanted to see the boy about it. Fred was working in town, and the white men left with plans to return. Thomas Croft hurried to find his son and sent him away to protect him from being lynched. That fear was rooted in the experience of racial terrorism; years earlier, Bunk Richardson was lynched in Gadsden and his body was left hanging from the Coosa River train bridge for the entire African American community to see.

    Fred Croft never moved back to Alabama after his near-lynching. His story left a lasting impression on Ms. Croft. “The racial terror has been embedded into you,” she shared. “And that’s the intention of any terrorist act, to invoke fear into a community.”

    Vanessa Croft near her home in Gadsden, Alabama. 2016


    Original photography by Rog Walker
    Audio story produced by Google for the Equal Justice Initiative; text courtesy of EJI
  • EJI Spotlight: Doria Dee Johnson
    From Grandpa to Emmett to Trayvon, the trajectory of lynching history has shifted over time in America. When Grandpa was killed in 1916, there was no charges brought and no trial. In 1955, Emmett Till’s murder, there was a trial, but no convictions. And then Trayvon Martin, now you have a trial and a not-guilty verdict. All the time you have dead black bodies and nobody is ever convicted for the murders.
    —Doria Dee Johnson

    When Doria Dee Johnson was growing up, a large photo of her great-great-grandfather Anthony Crawford hung above her aunt’s dinner table. Her family would say, “Walk with a sense of pride,” because Grandpa Crawford, as the family called him, defended himself up until his last moments.

    A successful businessman and landowner, Mr. Crawford was lynched in Abbeville, South Carolina, in 1916 after disagreeing with a white store owner over the price of cottonseed that Mr. Crawford brought to the market. His last words were, “I thought I was a good citizen. Give my bankbook to my children.” Following the lynching, the Crawford family fled the South in fear for their lives, leaving behind their 427 acres of prime cotton land.

    Ms. Johnson explains that upon visiting the land her family was forced to give up, she felt compelled to become an activist and historian. Today, she is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where her focus is the migration of African Americans from the South to Evanston, Illinois, during the Great Migration.

    On the one hundredth anniversary of her great-great-grandfather’s lynching, Ms. Johnson, along with two hundred of her family members and the Equal Justice Initiative, erected a memorial to Anthony Crawford in Abbeville. “The story has been denied for so long,” Ms. Johnson said. “But now, if you go to Abbeville City Hall to do business, you have to walk right past Anthony Crawford to do it. You can’t bypass him anymore.”

    Doria Dee Johnson at her home in Chicago. 2017

    Original photography by Melissa Bunni Elian
    Audio story produced by Google for the Equal Justice Initiative; text courtesy of EJI
  • EJI Spotlight: Anthony Ray Hinton
    Went from the tree to the electric chair, from the electric chair to the gurney. They brought it inside and created another way of execution. They took off the white robe and put on the black robe. At the end of the journey, they’re still putting you to death.
    —Anthony Ray Hinton

    Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he did not commit. When detectives first came to his house to arrest him, Mr. Hinton told them he was innocent. The detective responded, “I don’t care whether you did it or didn’t do it. But I’m going to make sure you’ll be found guilty of it. And there’s five things that are going to convict you. Number one, you’re black. Number two, a white man is going to say you shot him. Whether you shot him or not, I don’t care. Number three, you’re going to have a white prosecutor. Number four, you’re going to have a white judge. And number five, more than likely you’re going to have an all-white jury.” Mr. Hinton recalled, “He continued to look at me. And he said, ‘You know what that spell? Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.’”

    While he was on death row, Mr. Hinton’s mother passed away. He credits his faith with helping him survive this dark time. He would return to one Bible passage (Mark 11:24) over and over again, finding solace in its words. In 2015 the Equal Justice Initiative won Mr. Hinton’s release, and he became the 152nd person exonerated from death row in the United States. He moved back into the house his mother owned and, soon after, carved that Bible verse into his driveway.

    Today, Mr. Hinton shares his story as a powerful example of how the death penalty in America—a failed policy defined by racial bias and error—is a direct descendant of lynching. One hundred and fifty-eight people have been exonerated and released from death row in America. For every nine people executed in this country, one innocent person on death row has been identified and exonerated.

    Anthony Ray Hinton in Quinton, Alabama, where he has lived since 2015, when he was released from death row. 2017


    Original photography by Raymond Thompson
    Audio story produced by Google for the Equal Justice Initiative; text courtesy of EJI
  • Uprooted
    Uprooted, 2017 (6 min., 44 sec.)

    The point of these lynchings, at that time, is that there was no accountability. To have accountability, that would completely change the black experience in America. And the fact that as a black person you don’t expect justice.
    —Shirah Dedman

    In 1912, Thomas Miles, Sr., a black business owner in Shreveport, Louisiana, was accused of giving a note to a white woman. In response, a white mob lynched him with impunity, hanging him from a tree and riddling his body with bullets. Fearing for their lives, his wife and son fled to California and even changed the spelling of their last name (from Miles to Myles) to distance themselves from the tragedy.

    The Dedman/Myles family had not been back to the South in more than one hundred years. This past January, Shirah Dedman, her mother, Phoebe Dedman, and her aunt Luz Myles returned to Shreveport, seeking answers about their grandfather’s life and death. “Growing up, I had zero want to go to the South,” Shirah Dedman said. “But now I feel like we need to go see where we came from.”

    Numerous markers honoring the Confederacy remain in Shreveport today, yet there are no markers paying tribute to the victims of racial terror lynchings. While in Shreveport, the family visited the site where their grandfather was lynched, and participated in a soil collection to commemorate him. This is one of many soil collections EJI is facilitating at lynching sites across this country, as they work to build a lasting and more visible memory of our history of racial injustice.

    Shirah Dedman, Phoebe Dedman, and Luz Myles visiting Shreveport, Louisiana, where in 1912 their relative Thomas Miles, Sr., was lynched. 2017.
    (Photo: Rog Walker and Bee Walker for the Equal Justice Initiative)


    Film produced by Google for the Equal Justice Initiative; text courtesy of EJI
  • EJI Quotations
    Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
    –James Baldwin

    There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
    –Maya Angelou

    Slavery didn't end in 1865. It evolved.
    –Bryan Stevenson

    A book or a work of art—culture—cannot by itself change the world, but by asking the questions that matter, it might attempt to be an act of articulation against violence, both the brutal an the casual kinds. It might aspire to starting a conversation through which together we might find common meaning, and words that free.
    –Jeff Chang

    O yes,
    I say it plain,
    America never was America to me,
    And yet I swear this oath—
    America will be!

    –Langston Hughes

    If there is no struggle there is no progress.... This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

    –Frederick Douglass

    I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than affirm.

    –Septima Poinsette Clark
  • The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America
    The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America seeks to spark an honest conversation about the legacy of racial injustice in America today. Coordinated in collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and Google, this exhibition presents EJI's groundbreaking research into the history of lynching and connects it with artworks and archival material from the Brooklyn Museum's collections. At the same time, the exhibition features EJI's plans to open a national monument in 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama, commemorating victims of racial terror lynching, named The Memorial to Peace and Justice, and an accompanying museum that explores the legacy of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration.

    The narrative of racial difference continues to haunt our country. After slavery was formally abolished, in 1865, racial terror lynching emerged in the late nineteenth century and continued until about the middle of the twentieth century as a vicious tool of racial control to reestablish white supremacy and suppress black civil rights. The aftereffects are still with us today—from mass incarceration to disproportionate sentencing of people of color.

    Healing the deep wounds of our present means facing the truths of our past. Throughout the Brooklyn Museum's history, our exhibitions and public programs have confronted difficult and urgent issues because we believe that great art and courageous conversations contribute to a more just, civic, and empathetic world.

    We are proud to showcase the work of six photographers commissioned by EJI to illustrate the oral histories on view—Melissa Bunni Elian, Kris Graves, Raymond Thompson, Andre Wagner, Bee Walker, and Rog Walker—as well as Museum collection artists Sanford Biggers, Mark Bradford, Elizabeth Catlett, Melvin Edwards, Theaster Gates, Rashid Johnson, Titus Kaphar, Jacob Lawrence, Glenn Ligon, Dread Scott, Clarissa T. Sligh, Kara Walker, and Jack Whitten.