Addressing legacy of lynching may be uncomfortable but necessary to right wrongs, says activist Bryan Stevenson

Levine Museum of New South recently hosted the sold-out “An Evening With Bryan Stevenson,” founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
“An evening with Bryan Stevenson” featuring the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Why this story matters: The Bureau of Justice Statistics predicts that 1 in 3 Black males born in the U.S. will go to jail or prison in their lifetime. According to the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, lynching historically impacted race relations and created a legacy of racial inequality evident in today’s criminal justice system.

With the April debut of “The Legacy of Lynching” exhibit at Levine Museum of the New South, community members started down a path of connecting the history of lynching to the current state of mass incarceration. Bryan Stevenson is an important part of the discussion.

Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke to a sold-out crowd on Thursday about the exhibit, his work with EJI, incarceration rates in America, injustices in the criminal justice system and changing social narratives.

“It’s the broken among us that can teach us the way mercy can heal. It’s the broken that can show us what compassion can do to restore. It’s the broken that can actually help us understand what justice feels like, [and] it’s the broken that can teach us what it truly means to be human,” said Stevenson, who is also an attorney, social justice activist and New York Times’ bestselling author.

His personal stories led the discussion but also offered solutions to social injustices plaguing our country.

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“We got to commit to getting proximate to the poor, and the excluded, and the neglected, and the incarcerated, and the disfavored. It’s only when we are proximate to those who have been pushed aside that we can truly understand the nature of the challenges that we face,” he said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s part of the story

“The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America” exhibit, which runs through July 17, is the traveling component of EJI’s research on the history of lynchings and features oral testimonies from descendants of victims. Residents also learn about victims like Joe McNeely and Willie McDaniel, two lynchings that happened in Mecklenburg County.

Related: “Legacy of Lynching” exhibit opens April 25, features Mecklenburg County cases

The “Legacy of Lynching” exhibit on display at the Levine Museum of the New South through July 17, 2019.

“We need to create spaces in this country that tell the history of racial inequality that motivates us to say, ‘never again’,” Stevenson said. “Everybody needs to know where the lynchings took place in this community.”

Stevenson emphasized changing the narratives that history has created. He said exhibits like the “Legacy of Lynching” are a step in the right direction.

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“Because we’re not remembering the same things, we’re not actually responding to the same challenges in the same way,” he said. “I believe this memory deficit has created these systems and structures that allow racial inequality and bias and bigotry to keep replicating itself so that today in the 21st century, we’re still burdened by this history of racial injustice. We’re still not free.”

The Levine Museum organized the event as part of The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Remembrance Project.

“The Levine Museum uses history to build community, and we are eager to accept this challenge,” said Kathryn Hill, president/CEO of the Levine Museum of the New South.

Jonathan Limehouse is a journalist whose passion is to find good and impactful stories. He’s an avid sports fan who can be found at numerous sporting events around Charlotte.