I Just Learned About the Equal Justice Initiative – If You Don’t Know About It, You Should

In “The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw,” a series of letters I composed during the summer of 2016 that were published in December of that year, I wrote about the stolpersteine, an art project started by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992. According to Wikipedia, the project “aims at commemorating individual persons at exactly the last place of residency—or, sometimes, work—which was freely chosen by the person before he or she fell victim to Nazi terror, euthanasia, eugenics, was deported to a concentration or extermination camp, or escaped persecution by emigration or suicide.” I was astonished to learn that more than 50,000 stolpersteine have been laid in 20 European countries. “I don’t want to romanticize what the stolpersteine represent or over-celebrate their scope,” I wrote, “but it speaks volumes to me that so many communities across Europe have agreed to bear witness to, and in that way hold themselves accountable for, what the Nazis did [primarily to the Jews].” Then I wondered about whether a similar kind of project focused on slavery would even be possible in the United States:

Consider a white artist—as far as I know, Denmig is not Jewish—trying to pursue a similar project regarding slavery in the United States. Even setting aside the differing circumstances and practical considerations that might make a project like that impossible, it’s hard for me to imagine white America saying yes in the same way that those European communities have. We are, after all, a nation in which someone like Bill O’Reilly feels authorized to “fact check” on national TV First Lady Michelle Obama’s statement about the White House having been built by slaves; in which it took the mass murder Dylan Roof committed in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, with the explicit intention of starting a race war, for legislators finally to vote the Confederate flag off of South Carolina’s state house; in which far too many white people cannot accept the simple assertion that Black lives matter as anything other than the at least implicit claim that other lives don’t.

In such a nation, how many communities would be willing to be reminded daily, as they walked to work or school, or down the block for a quart of milk or a sandwich from the deli, or to take out the garbage or go to the movies, or church, or shul, or to meet a lover for a date—how many communities in the United States do you think would say yes to a memorial that asked them to confront not slavery in the aggregate, difficult and meaningful and necessary as that is, but the names and dates, the lived lives of the particular enslaved Black people who played a role in that community’s history? There’s no way to answer this question, of course, but I can, as I am sure you can, picture the kind of resistance such a project would run into across wide swaths of the country, not to mention in the right wing media. To put it simply, we are a nation in which white people tend to work very hard not only not to take responsibility for the historical fact of slavery, but also not to be held accountable for the ways in which we continue to benefit from its aftermath.

At the time I wrote those words, I did not know about Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization in Montgomery, Alabama founded by Bryan Stevenson. In February 2015, as part of a project that resembles Demnig’s stolpersteine to a remarkable degree, EJI released a report on the history of lynchings in the United States. “Lynching and the terror era,” Stevenson is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “shaped the geography, politics, economics and social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century.” The part of the project that most closely mirrors the stolpersteine involves erecting markers and memorials on specific lynching sites “to force people to reckon with the narrative through-line of the country’s vicious racial history, rather than thinking of that history in a short-range, piecemeal way.” Stevenson is expecting resistance and controversy not unlike what he experienced when his organization tried to place historical markers at the cites of the slave markets in Montgomery, Alabama, where, The Timessaid, in what feels like ironic understatement, “city and state governments were not welcoming…despite the abundance of Civil War and civil rights movement memorials” in the city.

We need this kind of memorial in the United States. I plan to start following EJI’s work.

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6 Responses to I Just Learned About the Equal Justice Initiative – If You Don’t Know About It, You Should

  1. 1
    lauren says:

    I wish him the best of luck with his project. I fear it will be a constant battle, especially in the current political climate.

    The “Stolpersteine” project, as wide-spread as it has become, is still facing opposition. While generally, we are taught about the crimes of Nazi Germany in school and there is majority condemnation and awareness at least of the broad stokes, there are still people who do not want it to become personal.

    When the organisation that my mom is active in (they aid students and other volunters in researching the stories of local victims and collect them) started collecting donations for “Stolpersteine” to be installed in our city, there was some really frustrating pushback. Nothing openly anti-semitic, but people going “I don’t want that in front of my house where I have to see it every day” “how would I explain what it means to my children” – basically a lot of people with the privilege to not have been personally touched by the atrocities committed, refusing to aknowledge the fact that not being aware of these things is not an option for those whose family history was forever altered by these crimes against humanity.

    If it is still this difficult here, where losing the war, combined with a political movement in the 1960 calling for accepting responsibility, thankfully mean that whitewashing thisaspect of our history is not the accepted standard (though still far to common), I can not imagine how people in the US will react to a similar project.

  2. 2
    lauren says:

    Reading my own comment again, I am afraid that I might come of as if I believe people in Germany are somehow better at dealing with our countries past or something like that. I absolutely do not think that. Current re-emergence of racist propaganda, combined with decade old resentments, means that I am more aware than ever how much we haven’t learned from our past.

    But losing the war meant there was outside pressure to openly deal with the past. And question how it came to pass and how to prevent it from repeating. Germany being defeated in the war was the best thing that could happen not just for the rest of the world, but for Germany.

    Considering the amount of people who still claim that the civil war was about state rights, I see an even steeper uphill climb and fiercer opposition for this project. Which makes it even more important.

  3. 3
    Ortvin Sarapuu says:

    “f I believe people in Germany are somehow better at dealing with our countries past”

    Frankly, as a non-German, I think you are. I don’t think there’s any country in the world (maybe Italy?) which has a better understanding of the historical crimes committed by its government.

    I’m not saying it’s perfect, I’m not even saying it’s good, but many, many other countries could stand to learn from Germany. Unfortunately the German total defeat in WW2 is integral to Germans’ understanding of their own crimes. Given that this effect is not reproducable, it’s unlikely to happen – most countries would reject a comparison between their own atrocities and Nazi atrocities, because the Nazis lost the war while they didn’t.

  4. 4
    Seriously? says:

    I’m a bit proud that there are no Stolpersteine in my country, despite the fact that we started the war on the side of the Axis. (We ended on the side of the Allies, and the day we switched sides was the day of the biggest territorial gains in the war, as we were occupying sizeable portions of Greece and Yugoslavia)

    Bulgaria used half a dozen pretexts not to deport a single Bulgarian Jew to extermination camps, and managed, through a combination of legislative action, strikes, resignations, bureaucratic incompetence, and military operations by the resistance to delay, detour, free and in two cases ‘lose’ the trains deporting Jews from the occupied territories.

    Unfortunately, there is a lot of congratulatory feelings about it nowadays, when the fact is, by using our military to settle grudges with our neighbors, we allowed the Reich to divert troops and further its goals. Very few living Bulgarians have any remorse about what our country did in World War II. In school, the dark parts were glossed over in a few words, and it was all about the military successes of the last eight months of the war (the ones we spent helping the Soviet roll the Germans through Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary)

    As a kid, I was very surprised that all the veterans to whom I spoke were reluctant to speak about their part in WWII, and although I was observant enough to see the shame, I did not have the data to figure out why. Even now, unless they personally go and look for the information, Bulgarian kids are not being told of what was going on in the Bulgarian Occupation zones. So, yes, Germany has done a lot better than any country of which I have any knowledge.

  5. 5
    Ben David says:

    I have never visited the South except for a quick visit to Houston. I just thought that plaques like these already existed, as a matter of course. It’s not even a monument – just a plaque saying “on this site…”

    I know there are similar plaques on Underground Railroad sites.

    I think a “potters field” for slaves was unearthed under Washington Square Park in NYC some years ago, but I was already living overseas and don’t know if there is a plaque there.

  6. 6
    Charles S says:

    I grew up in the South (in NC). I’ve definitely never heard of or seen a memorial to a lynching (my home county had 6 lynchings between 1877 and 1950, and I’ve traveled through New Hanover county- 21 lynchings- many times). I remember the (pro-slavery) commercials for a tourist plantation from my teen years, but never heard a mention of the history of NC lynchings.

    The design of the Memorial to Peace and Justice is beautiful and chilling.

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