As racial tensions continue to make headlines around the country, one group in Memphis has banded together to take action. Sharon Pavelda, a founding member of Responding to Racism, joins Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson to explain the group's push to mark the sites of lynchings that happened in the past - as a way to move forward.
Explain the goal of the movement
“This is an initiative to find and mark all the places of lynchings in the United States. Unfortunately in Tennessee, right in our own county, there are 21 of them that happened between 1882 and 1930. So at this first prayer meeting we’re going to be reading the names of the 21 known victims of lynching. As Ida B. Wells said, the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them. We’re hoping for more truth, a deeper honesty but grounded in this newer sense of humility – we don’t have the answers but we are part of the ongoing legacy of racial terror in our country.”
What are you doing with the existing markers of the slave trade?
“We acknowledge the fact that in that time in the '30s and '40s when there was this lost cause movement of putting up all kinds of memorials to the Confederacy, that this was the way it was then. So rather than perhaps tearing it down, what we’re saying is let’s write another one that just states '[Nathan B.] Forrest was a partner in Forrest and Maples Slave Dealers whose offices were nearby and by the time he was in the Confederacy he was one of the richest man in the South, and that on a certain date he led Confederate cavalry troops that captured nearby Fort Pillow and massacred over 300 African-American Union soldiers.’ And we feel like the education of what actually happened, and how it’s still happening with a different face and different name is how our hearts will be open to do this differently.”
Is that the only solution?
“That’s one way. The truth is we white people especially don’t know what to do next. That’s why we have prayer meetings, that’s why interfaith we’re gathering together and saying we need a new humility, and we need courage as we look at this painful truth of the violence and terror of slavery that is still with us today. Now we see them in the shootings, in the past there were lynchings where people brought picnics and there were 5,000 people watching this, and we say that could never happen here, yet we click on the videos of the killings of young black men, we watch them, we watch it happen, and it goes viral. How is that different?
Have you faced resistance from the community?
“Of course, and not so long ago maybe we were ourselves part of some of those groups. So we have compassion for that fear. There is so much fear here that it blocks out our powers of action and rational relating to each other. Some of the fear is that ‘oh don’t do this you’re just going to rile up a lot of antagonism’ and it reminds me so much of a story I learned in Sunday school from the Hebrew Bible about Moses in the desert, and there were all these poisonous snakes and people were dying and they said ‘please help us, ask your Lord to help us’ and Moses said ‘what should we do’ and the Lord told him to make a serpent and put it on a pole and that whenever a serpent bit someone that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. That story intrigued me as a child but I can’t help thinking about it right now, somehow looking at that thing that poisons us, looking at the reality we’ve been living with trying to push down, because it’ll bring up the pain of the past – but we’re living in so much pain today. And perhaps what we need to look at it, through art, through new ways of being together, maybe if we are willing to look at this, we will be shining that light of truth upon us as Ida B. Wells hoped we would.”
- Sharon Pavelda, founding member of Responding to Racism, in Memphis.
This segment aired on December 10, 2015.