I only thought I knew all about the legacy of lynchings

Tarabu Betserai Kirkland tells the story of a lynching in Ellisville.
Tarabu Betserai Kirkland tells the story of a lynching in Ellisville. Equal Justice Initiative/Google

The Equal Justice Initiative and Google on Tuesday launched a fascinating and stomach-churning interactive website.

“Lynching in America, Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” probably won’t be well-received by revisionists. But it’s definitely something I, an old white guy who grew up in an all-white county in Illinois, needed to hear. And see. And feel.

I thought I knew Mississippi’s history well enough. I’ve lived here for 26 years. I’ve heard black lawmakers and others speak forcefully about the state’s legacy of racial injustice. I know the big stories. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Emmett Till. I know the names James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and the trial of the man accused of their murders. That was a trial that took place while I lived here for a crime that took place when I was a child in Illinois. I knew about Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader assassinated when I was a child in Illinois. His murder trial took place when I was a middle-aged man living in Mississippi.

I know about the violent attack on the wade-in here on the Coast.

But that didn’t prepare me for the voice of Tarabu Betserai Kirkland, who passed down the story of his mother, whose family fled from Mississippi to East St. Louis, Ill., in the middle of the night. A family friend joined them but then returned to Mississippi, where he was accused of assault and hanged without a trial. John Hartfield’s lynching was advanced by the Mississippi State Daily News in an article headlined “John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville mob at 5 o’clock this afternoon.”

And at that point I knew my understanding of Mississippi was superficial at best.

There is a lot on the EJI/Google website I have yet to make it through. More audio stories, a film examining one family’s journey back to the scene of the crime, a map showing the prevalence of lynching, a full report on the the Montgomery, Alabama-based EIJ’s research, and a way to join the effort to promote racial healing.

I’m planning on exploring it thoroughly. I recommend you do so as well. I think I’ll send a link to Rep. Karl Oliver.

And finally, a hat tip to Janet O’Bryant, a Sun Herald reader who led me to the Huffington Post story about the site.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton