One hundred years ago, Jesse Washington was lynched downtown in Waco, Texas. Next week, on March 20th, some of my colleagues and I are organizing a memorial service to remember this horrific event and pray for a better future for our city.
We invited submissions of original prayers, poems, spoken-word pieces, music, drama, and other pieces of liturgy for this ecumenical memorial event. We received a number of thoughtful, heartfelt submissions, but we also a question:
“Why in the world do we need a memorial for one person who was lynched?!?! In the reality of things, Jesse Washington was one of thousands of Blacks that were lynched in America during the time period.”
I thought the answer was so obvious that I initially brushed off the question. But as our group proceeded with the plans, I thought about the question and wondered whether our university community would understand why we are doing this. And honestly, in moments of exhaustion when I put off responding to emails, I wondered, too. Why am I doing this?
To remember. We memorialize one person who was lynched to remind us that every single one of the thousands who were lynched was a human being who was killed unjustly.
In the speech “Lynch Law in America,” from 1900, Ida B. Wells-Barnett describes the injustice: “Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.”
Wells-Barnett was an African-American journalist and activist for civil rights and women’s suffrage. Her writings and activism advanced anti-lynching campaigns adopted by Black women’s clubs and the NAACP. Unsurprisingly, her work was controversial, even among women’s groups. Wells-Barnett argued that lynching began after the emancipation of slaves to repress “race riots.” When a constitutional amendment permitted black men to vote, lynching was used to violently prevent their participation in state and national elections. When fraud, intimidation, and local policy succeeded in suppressing the black vote, the brutality continued in the name of avenging or preventing rape and assault of white women. For this argument, lawmakers, ministers, and women’s groups accused Wells-Barnett of defending rapists and subverting “justice” for their alleged victims.
She did not defend rapists. (Neither do I.) She condemned a system that used allegations of rape of white women to legitimate hanging, burning alive, shooting, drowning, dismembering, dragging, and displaying black men’s bodies. Some allegations may have been true. Many were false. Despite the veracity of the allegations, the vigilantes tortured and killed men, women, and children in brutal, public ways, and we must not mistake that for any form of justice. Lynching apologists explicitly valued white lives over others. Lynching was, and remains a crime against humanity.
In our own age of campaigns against the impartiality of law and law enforcement, we should remember the lynching victims and the tensions within earlier waves of feminism and the temperance movement over anti-lynching campaigns. We do not have to condone criminal behavior to call for humane law enforcement or prison reform. We can affirm the humanity of accused and convicted criminals in the pursuit of justice. So we remember Jesse Washington and the other lynching victims to engage more consciously in the activism of our time. We remember so that we don’t lose sight of the complexities of our work. We work in remembrance of the many victims of injustice.
We also gather to pray. For some people, prayer is about making requests to the divine. But in a more expansive sense, prayer is communication with the divine. In prayer, we set time aside to connect to something greater than ourselves. It’s our hope that gathering as a community to pray for the future of our city prompts us to see beyond individual concerns. In a liberation ethics framework, as explained by Miguel De La Torre, prayer is not limited to individual, private conversations with God in hopes of gaining wisdom and guidance. De La Torre presents prayer as a communal activity that brings together different members of the spiritual body. It involves the critical application of the biblical text to the situation at hand. This involves critical analysis of the social context that gave rise to the text or its common interpretation. So we pray to give us time to come together, to read scripture, to seek God and hear God through other members of our community.
So why are we gathering? Why do we memorialize one person when there are so many others who have been harmed, not just in my local community but all of our communities?
To remember past wrongs.
To call attention to persisting injustices.
To make us mindful in our work.
To provoke us to pray.
 This argument about the reasons for lynching is found in several of Wells-Barnett’s essays, but is quite developed in The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (1895).
 See Miguel A. De La Torre’s Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins (2nd Edition, 2014).
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.