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How The Equal Justice Initiative Is Confronting A Painful History Of Racial Injustice

Ron Cogswell
CC BY 2.0
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened to the public in Montgomery, Alabama in 2018. Both the memorial and the Legacy Museum were founded by the Equal Justice Initiative.

The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama working to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment and racial inequality in the U.S. They opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery in 2018, and launched a number of projects dedicated to exposing the lasting impact of slavery and honoring the lives of those lost to racist hate crimes.

One of those efforts, the Community Remembrance Project, works with local communities to help uncover the lost stories of lynchings — including here in Colorado.

Jennifer Taylor is a senior attorney at EJI who works with some of those community organizations. She spoke with KUNC’s Colorado Edition about their work.

Interview Highlights:
These highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: At the Legacy Museum, there's a narrative that slavery never truly ended in the United States; it just evolved — and specifically, evolved into the mass incarceration of people of color. Tell us about that pipeline and how slavery has disguised itself in modern society.

Jennifer Taylor: At the same time that we understand that enslavement involved taking people from Africa and forcing them to work, it was also about creating ideas about why that kind of mistreatment was OK. And those were ideas that had to do with creating a racial hierarchy and arguing that African Americans were a type of people that it was important to exert a certain kind of control over. And so, at the point that African Americans are emancipated, there is not ever a point in which those ideas are eradicated. So new institutions emerge, including lynching, Jim Crow and also mass incarceration.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a large monument in Montgomery that recognizes victims of lynching in America. What is the message of this monument and who is it for?

Our aim is to both highlight the individual incidents of lynching and also encourage people to understand that this was also a mass attack against the entire African American community. Because each time a lynching took place, in addition to the particular person who was harmed, it also had an impact on any African American person who heard about it, because each person knew that that could happen to any of them. And they knew that law enforcement and other officials were not interested in holding the mobs accountable.

Our aim is for it to serve as a place that people can come to if they don't have information about this history. But this can also be a place that people can come to who know about this painful history, and have a personal connection to it, and have had to hold that pain for a long time. We want this site to be a place that people can come to for conversation and healing.

The Equal Justice Initiative has researched and uncovered lynchings across the country, many of which went unreported at the time they occurred. How does your team work with individual communities to research and then to reveal these stories?

We started our research about a decade ago. We were certainly able to pull from a lot of existing information, and then we also made an effort to add more information to our own review of historical records. No matter how many incidents of lynching we are able to compile, it will always be an undercount because there are always going to be incidents that weren't reported, and that people in the local communities were afraid to talk about.

Part of how we continue the research is through our Community Remembrance Project, in which we partner with people in communities who have a local history of lynching, and they're interested in increasing public awareness of it, either by erecting a historical marker or organizing some other kind of an event. And that's often an opportunity for us to collect new information about lynching because our local partners are often able to get access to archives and additional information.

According to the EJI, there are five identified lynchings in Colorado. That includes the murder of Preston Porter, Jr. Can you share a bit about what happened to Preston, and how your team has memorialized him today?

This is a lynching that happened in November of 1900. He was only 15. It's an incident in which after a white woman was murdered, he and some other members of his family were identified as people that officials were interested in investigating. It's pretty clear that race was the primary thing that caused officials to focus on them in the first place. There wasn't really evidence that connected them to the crime at all.

But after they were arrested, the police claim that he had admitted that he was involved and after that was made public — before he was able to stand a trial, before the state had to present any evidence, and before he had an opportunity to defend himself — a mob of over 300 white people pulled him from a train and lynched him by burning him alive.

There are a lot of newspaper articles that provide a lot of specific information. How he begged for his life — and several of the newspaper articles even provide identities of some of the people who participated in the mob. Despite that information, the official investigation concluded that he was killed by unknown persons, and no one was ever held accountable for the lynching.

Afterward, lawmakers in the state of Colorado were so embarrassed by the attention that was accorded to the lynching, they ultimately passed a law to reinstate capital punishment, because it was an argument that the lynching that happened because they didn't have capital punishment anymore. So, it's also a case that really highlights that connection between capital punishment and lynching.

It's a horrific case. And it's also a case that has been a part of our Community Remembrance Project, because last November, around the time of the 120th anniversary of the lynching, we were able to partner with a local community who had organized to erect a marker about the lynching so that it is now less of a hidden part of the state's history.

A lot of people hearing this story might be surprised to know that any lynchings, especially one so brutal involving someone so young, even occurred in Colorado. What would you say to Coloradans just learning about this history?

I think I would encourage anyone (to understand) that we don't want to respond to our painful history by hiding from it. It's important that we confront it so that we can learn from it and identify how it's continuing to impact us, and do everything possible to stop ourselves from repeating those same horrific events.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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