These High School Kids Are Helping Memorialize a Forgotten Lynching

“No one feared punishment, and no one was ever arrested.”

A crowd gathers at the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, in 1916.Library of Congress

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On a Sunday afternoon in May, more than 100 people gathered on a grassy knoll sandwiched between a swamp and a construction company lot on the eastern outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee. Two high school juniors, Khamilla Johnson and Khari Bowman, stood before them and described how, exactly 99 years ago, a crowd at least 50 times as large had come to this very spot to watch the lynching of a black man named Ell Persons.

Persons, the teens recounted, had been arrested for the rape and murder of a white girl based on pseudoscientific evidence, such as a claim that his image was imprinted on her eyes. Before he could be tried, a white mob abducted him and brazenly announced the place of his torture and death. They chained him to a log, doused him in gasoline, and set him alight.

Library of Congress

Afterward, spectators took pieces of his charred corpse as souvenirs. A photo of his decapitated head was printed on postcards. Accounts of the day described a carnival-like scene: Parents brought their children, vendors sold snacks, and cars lined up for more than a mile. “No one feared punishment, and no one was ever arrested for the crime,” Bowman said.

The memorial event was the launch of a campaign to stamp Persons’ name in Memphis’ civic memory. It was also part of a nascent movement to rediscover and memorialize lynching sites across the South. The effort is led by Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which has documented more than 4,000 lynchings of African Americans across 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. (The New Yorker profiled Stevenson in this week’s issue.) So far, the EJI has placed plaques at five sites. A plaque for Persons will be erected next spring. And in November 2017, EJI plans to open a museum and national lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

After Johnson and Bowman learned about Persons during a history class project, they and their classmates rallied around Stevenson’s call to unearth past racial violence and recognize its modern echoes. “History repeats itself,” said Justyce Knowles, a classmate of Johnson and Bowman. “We were all so upset about Sandra Bland, about Trayvon Martin, about Tamir Rice. I feel like, let’s keep it trending. Let’s make it a hot topic.”

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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