Ernie Lewis

Ernie Lewis

Congratulations to Ed Powe and Frankfort’s Focus on Race Relations (FORR) for their plan to erect a memorial to African American men who were lynched in Frankfort at the Singing Bridge just a little more than a century ago. This is long overdue.

Those who believe that this is “dredging up long-ago atrocities,” as worded in the recent State Journal online poll, show little understanding of the importance of both history and symbolism. 

The shameful history of our nation has long been swept under the rug, often in the name of “moving forward.” In the name of moving forward, we have never compensated for the kidnapping of more than 600,000 Africans, ripping them from their land, their families and their way of life. We failed to give those same men and women the rights guaranteed to all others in the country when we created our Constitution, despite our having declared that all men and women are created equal. Indeed, we treated them as three-fifths of a person.  

Nor have we acknowledged the harm in the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, in which the court stated that Africans had no rights under our Constitution. After the Civil War, the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments and 10 years of Reconstruction, we then allowed the Ku Klux Klan to roam throughout the South, terrorizing African Americans, killing them for voting or for speaking rudely to a white woman.  

We followed that with the period of Jim Crow, during which we made certain that freedmen could not exercise their rights as Americans. Convict leasing resulted in freedmen being arrested on trumped-up charges and “leased” back to plantation and mine owners where they continued to participate in the slave economy and to build wealth for plantation owners. This regimen was declared acceptable by the Supreme Court in the obscene case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which made separate but equal legal.  

This was the context in which Mr. John Maxley and Mr. Marshal Boston were lynched from the Singing Bridge. Maxley and Boston were just two of the 4,743 people who were lynched between 1882 and 1968 in the United States. The last lynching occurred in Alabama in 1981.

Let there be no mistake, lynching was done by “respectable” people forming as a mob to terrorize entire communities of African Americans, to force them to stay “in their place,” to ensure that they would not vote, that they would not express disrespect and, God forbid, that they would not have relations with white women. 

The federal government did its part as well, instituting racist housing policies such as red-lining that ensured that wealth could neither be accumulated nor passed on to African Americans' progeny. And now presently African Americans have to insist that “Black Lives Matter.” Schools are resegregating, and the Supreme Court has once again played its part by allowing voting rights to be diminished in Shelby County v. Holder. Note the timeframe covered by this brief history — from the dawn of our nation to our own time.   

Some have asked, “What good can come from digging up and displaying the unpleasant past and trying to blame white people today for what happened to African Americans way back then, as if they bear some sort of responsibility and need to apologize for it?” (Bob Gullette's guest column, "Focus on present, not past," June 11). By that reasoning, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following South African apartheid served no useful purpose in the healing of that racially divided nation. Likewise, the steps Germany took after World War II to compensate for the Holocaust, which resulted in the gassing and murdering of millions of Jews, Roma and intellectually disabled people, was merely a useless exercise intended to blame older Germans. No, South Africa and Germany could not move forward without dealing with their past, and neither can we.

It is long past time to acknowledge our shameful history and take the necessary steps toward reconciliation. A first step in this community is to set up a marker or memorial that says to all who pass over the Singing Bridge, “This happened, no one was ever convicted of these crimes, and this must never happen again.”

Ernie Lewis is a retired public defender who has lived in Frankfort since 2005. He can be reached at ernie.lewis@gmail.com.

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