AAPIP Voices

The Unflinching Legacy of Lynching: President’s Reflections

In late January, I visited Montgomery, AL for the first time. On the way to the hotel, I listened as my cab driver rattled off various places and eateries to visit. I asked him whether he had ever visited the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration or the National Memorial for Peace & Justice. He paused then whispered that he didn’t need to because he had lived part of that history himself. I later walked through the Legacy Museum that unflinchingly narrated a story of slavery, lynching, institutionalized racism and I visited the memorial of more than 4,400 names, including women and young children. Some names remain unknown, but their humanity was still very present. 

At the memorial, I focused on the year 1923 – one hundred years ago from this year 2023. While I am sure I missed some along the way, I counted 32 names (apologies for any omissions, misspellings or other errors). I wondered who they were in life and what talents died with them. Were they talented musicians? Genius inventors to be? Knowing that they were never afforded the dignity of rituals we typically observe in the passing of loved ones, I honor them here in this space: 

Samuel Carter 1/1; Sarah Carter 1/4; Sylvester Carrier 1/4; Lesty Gordon 1/5; Mingo Williams 1/5; James Carrier 1/7; Ben Webster 1/3; Leslie Leggett 1/3; Abraham Wilson 1/17; J.G. Smith 2/1; James Scott 4/29; John Morton King 4/30; Henry Simmons 6/7; Unknown 6/10; William Simmons 6/15; Roy Gaines 6/15; Jesse Bullock 7/3; Will McBride 7/12; William Menefee 7/29; Howard Flotow 8/4; Edward Brock 8/10; Aaron Harris 8/17; Lee Green 8/17; Benjamin Hart 8/24; John Gray 9/18; Unknown 9/29; Albert Ransberry 10/6; Horace Carter 10/12; Dallas Sowell 11/3; Edgar Phillips 12/18; William Hardeman Jr 12/26; Eugene Burnam 12/30

Four hundred years of extreme violence inflicted upon enslaved and free Black folks to strip their humanity based on skin color alone was hard to bear, and knowing that was just the tip of the iceberg was overwhelming. The cruel legacy of Black lynching spread gave free reign to inflict violence directed primarily at people of color everywhere. The federal government hanged 38 members of the Dakota tribe in Minnesota on December 26, 1862; a Los Angeles mob of 500 primarily white men robbed and massacred Chinese immigrants on October 24, 1871; a group of Anglo cattlemen, Texas Rangers and United States Army cavalry soldiers rounded up 15 men and boys of Mexican descent from a farming community and fatally shot them at close range January 28, 1918. These are just several of too many such events littered across this nation’s bloody history – the unflinching legacy of lynching that haunts us still. 

Witnessing anti-Black racism in my own community and beyond while experiencing anti-Asian violence throughout my lifetime, I embraced these stories as living history, rather than a past left behind. Fresh in my mind were two mass shootings in California, one directed toward the Asian community at the height of Lunar New Year celebrations and the other directed at farm workers of color. In both instances, the alleged shooters were Asian men who were part of rather than separate from the community. As if to underscore parallel but related themes, the soon after shocking videos in the beating death of Tyre Nichols bookended my visit to Montgomery. I grappled with a continued legacy of violence pervading our own communities, from people who look like us (masculine violence is a theme threaded through but rarely centered). I bore witness to humanity lost and carried those 32 names from the Memorial alongside the lives more recently lost back home with me as a personal reminder of how much is left for us to do as a nation. 

Black history is just the beginning in telling the full unflinching story of bravery, courage, freedom, and democracy carried forward. As a nation, it has taken too many generations to arrive at this reflection point. For me, the visit was powerful as well as familiar in its many echoes of lived experiences from my own community and even in my own lifetime. The othering that so many of us have worked so hard to overcome has its deepest roots in the economic success of anti-Blackness. 

As I walked through the museum and memorial, I was overwhelmed by the complicity of those in the North as well as the South where whole industries thrived economically by the forced bondage of those they deemed less than. This economic engine that generated this nation’s super power strength was also made possible through the genocide of Native Americans and off the backs of generations of laborers since. I couldn’t help but think about the historic racial wealth divide that helped to form the sector we call philanthropy (ironically defined as the love of humanity and juxtaposed against the legacies that created it), absent yet very present in the telling of these stories. 

If we are bold enough to explore these crimes against humanity within the philanthropic sector, then we must embrace all of it as our unflinching collective legacy – not just as our past or shades of present day – but as a way to chart a future worthy of those whose lives were cut far too short through racial terror. So much brave space has been created by the very communities that offer humanity in the face of inhumanity. That is the truer gift of philanthropy than simply doling out dollars through standards of worthiness that have little to do with what is needed in the larger context of historical and current realities. The museum and the memorial are gifts to us all through truth-telling, offering a space for shared humanity, and for philanthropy, another new starting point forward, if we are brave enough to receive it.