Thousands of African American men, women, and children were lynched decades before and after the Civil War, and their stories have gone largely untold. This Sunday, on 60 Minutes, Oprah Winfrey takes viewers on a behind-the-scenes look inside The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, which is dedicated to their memories.
Winfrey walks through the memorial with lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, who led the efforts to build the memorial. Asked by Winfrey why he chose to commemorate lynching as opposed to other injustices done by white people to the black community, Stevenson says the murderous acts were a way for whites to maintain political control over African Americans, who were supposed to get the right to vote after the Civil War.
“Lynching was especially effective because it would allow the whole community to know that we did this to this person…a message that if you try to vote, if you try to advocate for your rights… anything that complicates white supremacy…and political power, we will kill you,” Stevenson said.
The memorial, which takes up six acres in the heart of the best-known city in the struggle for civil rights, has 805 steel markers that bear the names of the people murdered—often with thousands of onlookers amid a picnic-like atmosphere. Each marker represents a state county and contains the names of victims of documented lynching from the area. There were 361 documented lynchings in Alabama alone.
Of the more than 4,300 cases of lynching documented by Stevenson and his team, the story of Jesse Washington particularly stands out. Sia Sanneh, one of Stevenson’s team member, tells Winfrey about a newspaper article she unearthed of Washington’s murder describing a crowd of 15,000 people, many “dressed in their Sunday best.” It detailed how Washington’s clothing was soaked in oil before he was tied to a tree and then lowered into a fire set beneath him.
“I think it’s incredibly telling that death was not enough… People would be killed and then shot and then set on fire,” she says. “There are some cases where the body was dragged to the heart of the black community.”
In addition to the monuments displaying the names of the victims, the team has also collected jars filled with soil from many different places where lynching took place. Cameras rolled on as descendants of Wes Johnson, a lynching victim collected soil samples from an Alabama cotton field.
Johnson, an 18-year old at the time, was accused of assaulting a white woman. A mob took Johnson from his cell before his trial, shot him and then hung him from a tree.
“Something happened here that was wrong, unjust, and too few people have talked about it,” he says. “So that’s what we want to do today. We want to recognize the wrong that was done to Wes Johnson,” Stevenson told Winfrey.
Winfrey’s report will air on 60 Minutes on Sunday, April 8 at 7:00 p.m., ET/PT on CBS. Watch a preview clip below.