Claiming Our Responsibility


4,000, 801, 70, 24 AND COUNTING. It’s well past time to be honest about our numbers and their toll. About 4,000 people were lynched in the South between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, about 800 more than previously thought due to the research of the Equal Justice Initiative. The “about” part is significant since those kinds of statistics are more carefully hidden than proudly claimed. 

They were brutally murdered – many times before cheering crowds and reported in local newspapers – in 801 Southern counties, 70 of those counties in Tennessee, and of those, Shelby County was first with 18 lynchings, according to The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. That sad number is at least 24, according to recent research by the Memphis Lynching Sites Project and others.

Last year, I read two things that caused me to take a wide-eyed look at myself and where I live, and to see the danger in denial and the hope in honesty. One was a book, “Just Mercy,” by a Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson; the other was an article by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker about Stevenson and his work. Stevenson was honored last year by the National Civil Rights Museum with the Freedom Award.

This year, recent events memorializing local lynchings should call us to action.

Stevenson and the EJI are building the Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, a memorial to the 4,000 who died so horribly and have been so forgotten. Central to its design are 801 columns – one each for the lynching counties, each colored by soil from that county – that visitors see as they approach, and then note that each is hanging. There are 801 duplicate columns as well, and Stevenson’s vision and invitation is for each of the counties to come and claim their column and then display it at home.

I know exactly where ours should go, on a perfect corner to remember what Billie Holiday called “Strange Fruit” in her haunting song, and perhaps be haunted no more.

It once had a statue of Columbus, since moved, but the platform remains, calling for something meaningful. While there is no marker for what was once directly behind – a slave market – there is ironically a marker there for the site of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s home – who profited from the buying and selling of human beings. Directly across the street is the site of justice in Shelby County, the D’Army Bailey Courthouse.

Only the whole of history can warn us of what we’re truly capable of and truly inspire us to be better.

If we have the courage to, as Stevenson says, “confront the truth of our past” and simultaneously our present, we should applaud when our column stands at the corner of Adams and B.B. King.

We should be among the first of the 801, so that the infamy of being first in lynchings in Tennessee can rest in peace.

I’m a Memphian, in whole and in part. 

Dan Conaway, a communication strategist and author of “I’m a Memphian,” can be reached at