Lynching and Repentance

June 13th, 2017

When I remember learning American History in school, there is a distinct gap around the African-American experience between the end of slavery and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Of course, we learned that slavery was bad, and President Lincoln was right to end it. Growing up in Texas, my father taught me about “Juneteenth,” the holiday celebrating the announcement of the abolition of slavery on June 19, 1865 in Texas.

We learned about the Civil Rights Movement, which was good and primarily seemed to be about black people being able to vote, go to school with white people, and drink out of the same water fountains. We never questioned what gave rise to Jim Crow Laws or what else had happened to former slaves and their descendants in the meantime. The first time I heard Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit,” I didn’t understand why people said that song was so powerful. It has only been in the past several years that I have listened, read, and learned about the widespread, racially-based terrorism inflicted upon black people in the South and beyond in those years when our school history curriculum was focused on World Wars and East Coast politics.

Novels like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and documentaries like Ava Duvernay’s 13th began to fill in the gaps. While I had learned that the Great Migration, the movement of 6 million African-Americans from the South to elsewhere in the country in the years after World War I, had occurred in response to economic opportunities, 13th makes clear that it was also a response to racial terrorism, to segregation and lynchings. Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 3500 African-Americans were lynched. These extrajudicial killings were often tacitly sanctioned by law enforcement, and contrary to depictions of them secretly taking place under the cover of darkness, frequently they were community outings where families would bring picnics and then take parts of the lynched person’s body as a “souvenir.”

Last week, I attended a Memorial Eucharist at Fisk University Chapel for the known and unknown victims of lynching in Davidson County, put together by the Anti-Racism Task Force in the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee. After the service, we walked over to St. Anselm’s Episcopal Church where a memorial plaque with the names of Henry Grizzard, Ephraim Grizzard, and Samuel Smith was unveiled and blessed. In the context of our Christian faith, we remembered their stories, asked for forgiveness and celebrated communion together in the hope of God’s redemption.

The Equal Justice Initiative out of Montgomery, Alabama has promoted and inspired much of this communal remembering around acts of lynching, and there are plans in place for both a museum and a memorial. As Bryan Stevenson, the executive director, points out, you cannot travel to South Africa or Germany without confronting the legacy of apartheid or the Holocaust; while here in America, we have monuments to the Confederacy but little that tells the story of our national sin of white supremacy.

Their hope and our hope is that by facing the truth of our past, by telling these stories, we can begin to heal the deep wounds that divide us today. There can be no reconciliation with one another or with God without repentance, and we cannot repent unless we acknowledge where we have sinned.

This story is not over. Earlier this month, a noose was found at the newly-opened National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC. As Christians, we have the language to help end this. After all, we worship a man who was also hung from a tree. We have the language of repentance, of forgiveness, of reconciliation.

Last week’s service was held in conjunction with the Christian Scholars’ Conference at Lipscomb University, a Church of Christ-affiliated school. There is not much that the Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church share, but we came together over this — the hope that telling the truth about our past and receiving the forgiveness and grace of God will lead us into a better, more hopeful future.  

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