The gallows hastily erected in front of the National Capitol during the January 6th insurrection signaled the mob’s intentions: They were out to kill Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. The vice president and the House Majority Leader might have hanged on the approach to the stately home of our democratic republic, one built by enslaved people from Africa.
Can America breathe?
Midway through Black History Month, the moderator of a Minnesota History Center discussion echoed what was first heard during last summer’s protests, “Minneapolis has become the epicenter for a national reconciling with race.” The panel of black authors and scholars went on to equate the recent killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Elijah McCain in Aurora, Colorado and Ahmaud M. Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia to lynchings — murders committed without fear of retribution — racist terrorism associated with ropes and tree limbs in the deep South during the Jim Crow era from 1877 to 1959.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) shines light on racist terrorism in the United States. The respected, Alabama-based civil rights organization estimates that more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs during Jim Crow.
The Minnesota Lynchings
On June 15, 1920, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie – were dragged from the Duluth city jail by a large white mob, violently beaten and lynched from a lamp post. The young black men had come to Duluth by train as workers with the John Robinson Circus. There was a circus parade and a day of big top performances followed by a claim that a 19-year old woman had been raped at gunpoint at night in the main tent. Sixteen black circus workers were arrested with no evidence. More than five thousand gawkers are said by some to have witnessed the three hangings. The rape claim was subsequently discredited.
The lynchings sparked headlines around the country and outrage among a good many in Duluth, but full public ownership of the horror took its own time. In 2003, a memorial featuring a wall with educational plaques and the bronze likenesses Elia Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie was dedicated near the hanging site. It is thought to be the nation’s first memorial to lynching victims. In October, a historical marker from The Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project was unveiled at the memorial.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Clayton, Jackson and McGhie are also remembered at EJI’s National Memorial of Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The six-acre site employs architecture, art, sculpture and landscaping to honor the humanity that was denied life at the end of a rope. Some refer to it as “The Lynching Memorial.”
A garden square is bordered by an imposing arcade for visitors to walk and pause among 805 suspended and anchored rectangular slabs. Each slab represents a southern county where blacks were lynched from 1877 through 1950. The names of the victims in each county are engraved on the russet metal slab skins; unnamed are their traumatized wives, husbands, children, families and neighbors.
Clayton, Jackson and McGhie are listed on a modest wall sign facing the slabs. Of the 20 known lynching deaths in Minnesota, they are the only African Americans. A single monolith near the memorial’s entry is engraved with the names of 15 states with fewer lynchings. Minnesota is among them.
The Swiggum tours: From Eden Prairie to Alabama
Eden Prairie residents Mark and Leslie Swiggum have visited the Montgomery memorial and its nearby partner The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration some twenty times since their 2018 openings. Leslie found her first visit “sobering, emotional and a powerful experience.” Mark was overwhelmed, finding it “a solemn place that required much reflection…. I was reminded of how little I knew about the racism that runs deep in our country and was the source of these lynchings…. racism is at the core of our history and we have yet to address it.”
Mark, a retired Prairie View School teacher, and Leslie, who taught at Wayzata High School, have re-purposed their social justice passions. For nearly a decade, they have taken Minnesotans on tours of historic civil rights sites in Mississippi and Alabama. The tours feature meet-ups with some of the lesser known but important and now elder “foot soldiers” of the movement. They’ve become friends with the likes of Rev. Calvin Woods of Birmingham, Joanne Bland of Selma and Nelson Malden, a Montgomery barber with a political science degree who regularly trimmed MLK’s hair.
“He [Malden] has a million stories about the Movement,” says Swiggum. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in a parsonage yards from the shop when he was preaching at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the late 1950’s. King and other civil rights organizers sat in a Malden Brothers Barber Shop chair for a shave and a hair cut and the parlor gab.
Although retired, Nelson Malden shares his up-close-and-personal memories with Swiggum and company in what is the only business in the otherwise vacant but historic Ben Moore Hotel which is reportedly slated for restoration and landmark status.
A reunion in Tuskegee / a visit to the Lynching Memorial
My friend John Heins and I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in October 2018 six months after its opening. We were in Alabama for a reunion of participants in several community education programs that were operated in poor school districts in the mid-1960s by Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University).
Our particular program employed 900 mostly African-American college students. John and I were among 65 from St. Olaf College who had made their separate ways to Tuskegee for the massive Peace Corps like program. It was a promising and dangerous time when voter registration drives, the murders, the marches and the Ku Klux Klan made national headlines along the same Alabama roads where we quietly taught typing, English and math to kids eager to learn. Some in our “army” of teachers, drivers, thespians and health workers were refused service in restaurants, chased down country roads and tossed into jail.
During our reunion, we learned that a shooter had gunned down worshipers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The atrocity and the recurring outbursts of hate and violence that have challenged America, again weighed heavily on the nation.
John Heins and I entered the National Memorial for Peace and Justice the day after the Tree of Life killings; a clear Sunday afternoon. We didn’t need to talk. For maybe two hours, our respective bearings pointed in separate sometimes intersecting directions. The memorial is a place for silence and reflection, but its settings, sculptures and slabs were speaking; sending pleas not to forget, not to repeat.
I walked though hundreds of regimented slabs laying flat in the sun on a field of concrete. Each monument can be claimed by its designated county and then installed in that county. One of them reads.
SAINT LOUIS COUNTY
Another Black History Month has passed and the final location of another memorial, one at East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue In Minneapolis, is being debated. A large, clenched fist, a steel statue, a peoples’ memorial commands the center of the closed intersection. Iconic murals shout from sidewalk walls.
The killing of George Floyd, the storming of the Capitol by fellow Americans, the mass shootings, the high rate of the incarceration of black men, the achievement gap, white nationalists, the pandemic — maybe America can not breathe.
University of Texas educator and author Peniel Joseph spoke mid-February during the Minnesota History Center panel: “George Floyd is the first time in American History that an anonymous black man — his murder — inspired the kind of massive social disruption, the largest social movement and mobilization in American History ….”
Maybe there’s still oxygen … a moral compass … a sense of urgency.
Editor’s Note: Author Jeff Strate and John Heins were among the 65 St. Olaf College students who served on the Tuskegee Institute Summer Education Program in 1965. John Heins is a retired Lutheran pastor in northern, Illinois.
Mark Swiggum, can be contacted via email email@example.com
Clayton Jackson McGhei Memorial, Duluth https://claytonjacksonmcghie.org/
Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/