Racial violence, racial healing

Moderated by Rick Badie

Andrew Sheldon, a jury consultant, has assisted in the prosecutions and retrials of eight civil rights murder cases. Today he writes about founding the nonprofit organization, Southern Truth and Reconciliation (STAR), along the lines of the South African Truth Commission. A companion essay, written by one of my former University of Georgia professors, notes the work of the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee, a biracial response to “the last lynching in Georgia.”

In search of racial healing

By Andrew Sheldon

My entry into the dark world of racial violence began in 1994, when the state of Mississippi asked me to assist as a jury consultant in prosecuting Byron de la Beckwith for killing NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers.

While in Mississippi preparing for the trial (Beckwith was convicted of murder in the 1963 slaying), I learned how fear of white viciousness controlled the daily lives of African-Americans not just in the era of slavery, but in the modern era — how that fear and violence divided us along racial lines and how it affects us all, even today. By 2003 I had helped prosecute six more Klan murders of African-Americans. But a feeling of helplessness engulfed me.

Witnesses to crimes that occurred in 1963 and 1964 were dead and dying. There could be no more prosecutions.

Yet there had been so much violence for which the violent would go unpunished. And that was when Professor Theophus Smith suggested we might learn something from the South African Truth Commission model.

Thee Smith, an Emory University religion professor and Episcopal priest, trained in reconciliation methods. Smith suggested we form an organization that could respond to communities wishing to work though their segregated lifestyles by lifting “the veil of silence” that covered our conflicted past — by telling the truth about racial violence, and by finding ways to move forward as healthier communities less separated and divided from each other. In 2003, we founded Southern Truth and Reconciliation — STAR.

STAR, a nonprofit consulting organization, is designed to help communities address local issues of racial injustice through truth-and-reconciliation processes. We respond specifically to communities interested in connecting the dots between present-day incidents and the legacy of lynching, race riots and other communal forms of racial/ethnic violence. Our team recommends and helps plan reconciliation projects within a community by providing public speakers or facilitators and recommending other resources, such as government agencies, civic or grassroots organizations, and educational materials.Projects that STAR has initiated or supported include:

• Working with and supporting the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee as it seeks ways to focus on the 1946 lynchings of four African-Americans in Monroe.

• Co-organized Atlanta’s Coalition to Remember the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot. Several churches sponsored monthly meetings to discuss the issues of race within Atlanta’s faith community. The state Board of Education agreed to include information about the 1906 riot in high school history lessons. At the end of the yearlong remembrance, on the weekend the riot had occurred 100 years earlier, a four-day series of meetings and performances occurred across Atlanta to focus on racial issues. In 2006, the coalition received the city’s highest civic honor, the Phoenix Award.

• In 2008, STAR assisted the Atlanta Friends of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission by helping with statement-taking among Liberians who had relocated in Georgia to escape the ravages of the Liberian civil war .

• STAR observed the anniversary of the Sam Hose lynching in Newnan. Our members supported a 2012 conference on truth and reconciliation called “The Gathering.”

• In November 2012, STAR provided support for the “Hidden Stories of Rights Denied” conference in Orlando, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization project co-sponsored with The Rosewood Heritage Foundation in Rosewood, Fla.

Today, we have partnered with Hope in the Cities, a reconciliation group in Richmond, Va., to help yet another Georgia community, not yet identified, lift the veil of silence that has suppressed an honest conversation about the issues that have divided it for decades. Recently, local community leaders and residents attended a workshop in hopes of forming a group that can reach across the abyss to build the trust essential for our futures together.

We encourage interested people to join STAR. More information is available at www.southerntruth.net.

Andrew Sheldon, a jury consultant, is a founder of Atlanta-based Southern Truth and Reconciliation.

Moore’s Ford opens eyes

By John W. English

In a recent four-hour drive from Athens to Selma with a handful of stalwarts from the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee, I reflected on what I’ve learned from this biracial civil rights group over the past decade and a half.

The group was established to publicly commemorate “the last lynching in Georgia” — the 1946 slaying of four African-Americans in Walton County — after 50 years of cover-up. Its goals: Create a memorial effort and seek justice, convictions and closure for this racially motivated crime.

Though the committee’s efforts over the years have yet to bring culprits to justice, they have had a powerful, positive influence on this rural sector of Middle Georgia, and a profound effect on me personally.

The truth of this event has been widely acknowledged through public events and reams of press coverage. It has forced locals to own up to the region’s dark past and recognize the terrorism generations of African-Americans have lived with all their lives.

In working together searching for gravesites, restoring cemeteries and hosting memorial services, the committee slowly built trust and reconciliation between the races.

Over time, I learned the Moore’s Ford incident was one of thousands of lynchings across the South in the first half of the last century. Those firsthand lessons are indelible.For example, I stood enrapt in the town square of Abbeville, S.C., listening to the family of Anthony Crawford tell how he had been lynched and his land taken, yet no one had ever been charged with those crimes.

I also mourned Lemuel Penn at an emotionally charged service in Colbert that recounted how Ku Klux Klan members in Athens shot and killed this black soldier on the highway and got away with it.

And in a Watkinsville church, I wept when I heard the family of John Lee Eberhardt recount his lynching in Oconee County.

A workshop the committee held at Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue library opened my eyes to see lynching in a national perspective. Nine truth-and-reconciliation groups similar to ours came to tell their stories, including one from my hometown of Tulsa. That one got to me, because I’d never heard of that race riot growing up there.

The horrific lynching photographs assembled for the “Without Sanctuary” exhibition at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, and the subsequent book by Atlantan James Allen, convincingly documented this low point in American human relations.

When I learned my UGA colleague, Professor E.M. “Woody” Beck, had researched lynchings in the South and discovered Georgia had the second-highest number after Florida, I was motivated to create a visual memorial to those victims. I came up with the idea of making a noose for all 552 Georgia victims and hanging them together from the ceiling, so viewers could gain a sense of the huge number of atrocities. I also framed details on each known lynching — name, race, county, alleged offense.

My installation was first exhibited at Atlanta’s Eyedrum Art Gallery, and later at UGA’s Tate Center Gallery during Black History Week. Curiously, the public reaction was somewhat mixed. Some said it was best to leave this story untold. A few found it offensive. Most expressed appreciation for my artistic documentation of our state history.

The Moore’s Ford committee also established a scholarship program for high school seniors in seven nearby counties, creating an annual living memorial. Students learned about past racial violence as well as reported on current discrimination. It was an instructive legacy.

Arriving in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” my companions hand-crafted signs to continue our mission: spreading the word about our shared cause. It felt right to be at another historic event, testifying for the civil rights of every American.

John W. English is a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Georgia.


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