Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
— “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol, 1939
MONROEVILLE, Alabama — Growing up here, I was steeped in the stories that ripple through To Kill a Mockingbird. This is Harper Lee’s hometown, and her narrative, though fictionalized, brilliantly portrayed its racial climate in the 1930s. She called on eccentric characters who were well-known in town and put to good use tales with which she was familiar. My late father, who grew up here, identified some of those characters and tales for me.
He and my mother also taught their children to negotiate the landscape of Jim Crow, a welter of oppressive codes and customs designed to legitimize white supremacy. Those codes were still in force in my childhood, so I attended segregated schools through elementary and much of high school. I followed the law that locked me out of “WHITES ONLY” restrooms, waiting rooms, and downstairs seats in the movie theater.
As a very small child, I had my own experience with running right into the wall — not always visible but substantial nevertheless — put in place to separate the races. My mother and I were traveling to Montgomery on a commercial bus operated under the banner of Trailways Bus Lines. We had taken seats near the front, but when we stopped in Hayneville, just south of Montgomery, more white travelers boarded. The driver ordered us to the back.
At the ripe old age of four, I objected, my mother remembers. Terrified, she dragged me to the back. When we arrived at our destination, she called my father and told him he would have to come to drive us home. She didn’t dare take me on another bus ride for fear my obstinance would bring trouble.
Cynthia's parents, Mary Marshall Tucker (top) and John Tucker (in uniform in the gold-framed picture), protected the family from the mental and physical toll of surviving in Jim Crow Alabama.
While my parents did what they could to protect their children from the self-loathing and fear that Jim Crow intended to inculcate in us — we did not go to restaurants, for example, since they insisted on handing black patrons plates out the back door — we were made to understand the necessity of following the rules. My mother and father did not want their four children to grow up bitter or intimidated, but they did want us to grow up.
My parents taught me about the Scottsboro boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of the rape of two white women in Alabama in 1931, and about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teen lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Watching the progress of the civil rights movement on television, I knew that black people could be murdered for pursuing the rights that the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed “inalienable.”
But I had never heard a word about lynchings in Monroe County. With the April opening of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, I have learned what my parents did not tell us: The place in which I grew up was grimly intolerant, miserably cruel to its black citizens, violently committed to a particular order. Even in a state that is historically infamous for its racism, Monroe County’s 17 documented lynchings stand out. Only Jefferson County (Birmingham), with a mind-boggling 29, and Dallas County (Selma), with 19, had more.
My hometown has suddenly become a place less familiar.
Cynthia Tucker looks down onto the square from a courtroom window of the Old Monroe County Courthouse. The courthouse serves as a museum for tourists and Harper Lee fans who flock to the town throughout the year.
The sheer number of lynchings in Monroe County lends some insight into Lee’s emphasis on racial justice. Born in 1926, she was no doubt influenced by the work of her attorney father, Amasa Coleman (A.C.) Lee, who once defended two black men who were charged with killing a white storekeeper. Though father and son were convicted and hanged, they were at least given a trial. Lee would likely also have heard the stories of those black men who were simply brutalized and hanged in the public square without benefit of judge and jury, since their murders would have been sanctioned by some of the town’s leading citizens.
The National Memorial’s list of Monroe County lynching victims ends with Willie Lee Cooper, beaten to death in 1943. According to researchers at the Equal Justice Initiative — Bryan Stevenson’s legal advocacy nonprofit, which built the museum — Cooper was a mechanic employed at a garage owned by white brothers Edward and Wilbert Owens in the hamlet of Beatrice. Cooper quit his job without notice, according to EJI records, a breach of code and custom that cost him his life.
With the help of a local law enforcement official, apparently, the Owens brothers beat Cooper to a bloody pulp and then dropped him off at a tiny hospital in another rural community, Repton. When doctors asked Cooper what happened, he replied, “I’m afraid to tell. They will beat me again if I tell,” according to EJI documents. He succumbed to his injuries.
Eighty-one-year-old James Prevo, a black resident of Beatrice, remembers Cooper’s death.
“Any little thing black people did, they’d beat you, shoot you, hang you,” he said. Referring to the Great Migration of black Americans from the Deep South to the Northeast and Midwest, he said, “A lot of (black people) left home to keep from getting killed. All of my older brothers and sisters left. They went to Cleveland.”
An inscription below the more than 800 steel monuments representing victims of lynching in the United States which cover the grounds of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in downtown Montgomery. A sign in downtown Montgomery points visitors to the memorial.
Stevenson and his staff spent years poring through historical records to document terror lynchings, defined as acts of fatal violence intended to intimidate entire communities. They eventually confirmed more of those violent deaths than historians had previously recognized. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice remembers more than 4,400 victims of lynchings committed between 1877 and 1950 in states across the country, but most in the South. EJI staffers documented 361 racial terror lynchings in Alabama alone, a number that, though awful, pales next to Louisiana (549), Georgia (592), and Mississippi (654).
To commit a victim’s name to one of the more than 800 steel blocks that hang in the memorial, researchers needed at least two archival records to corroborate the act of racial terror. But Stevenson has emphasized the limits of that work: Countless victims will never be known, as those cruel acts of terror have been lost to history. Families fled and buried the stories of brutality. Relatives left behind learned never to speak of those horrible episodes.
Official documents gave scant notice to the injustices that were woven into the fabric of civic life, often with the implicit or explicit support of local law enforcement officials. Sometimes, an act of racial terrorism was thinly disguised as a legitimate police action, just shy of a lynching. Eighty-four-year-old Nannie Ruth Williams, a lifelong Monroeville resident, told me of one such act carried out by a vicious sheriff named Charlie Sizemore, who served as the county’s chief law enforcement official from 1956 to 1966.
As Mrs. Williams remembered, she was an adolescent when Sizemore came to her segregated neighborhood one night to break up a raucous party. One man fled the scene, attempting to escape by climbing a fence. The sheriff shot him dead as he climbed, his body entangled on the fence.
“Sizemore left him up there,” Mrs. Williams recalls, “and made us all come and look at the body. Every one of us, children, too, had to come and look. I was only 13 or 14 years old. He said, ‘That’s an example for the rest of y’all niggers. That will happen to you’ if we didn’t do what he said. I was so scared, but we had to stand there and look. What could we do?”
As a child, I had never heard that story, though my father probably knew the tale all too well. Parents wished to shield their children from the awful psychological toll of racial terrorism. They hoped to point their progeny toward something better. And they needed to submerge their own memories to persevere. When I saw Mrs. Williams the next day, she repeated the story but added, “I don’t like to think about all of that, Cynthia. It’s painful.”
Nannie Ruth Williams, 84, a lifelong Monroeville resident, recalls a law-and-order racial killing of the sort that was commonplace when she was young.
Stevenson believes, though, the nation must acknowledge that brutal past to bind up its wounds and be healed. That mission compelled him to raise $20 million in private funds to build the memorial and the accompanying Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration — cultural institutions which, unlike other civil rights memorials, don’t seek to comfort, but to confront.
In a press conference in April, just before the memorial and museum opened, Stevenson talked about his faith in the redemption they might inspire.
“I am persuaded that we are not free yet in America, that we are burdened by this history.
It is a kind of smog that’s in the air, and we all breathe it in, and if we are going to get to freedom, we have to talk about things that we haven’t talked about.
“We have to talk about the genocide of native people, which we haven’t really done. We have to talk about slavery. We have to talk about lynching. We have to talk about segregation. ... I think there is a way of talking about it that can actually move us to someplace better.
“My interest in talking about the history of racial inequality isn’t to punish our country. ... I’m not interested in punishment. I’m interested in reconciliation. ... We are not defined by (this history). We are not doomed by it. But we cannot ignore it. We have to confront it ... to become a more just society,” he said.
The most challenging aspect of Stevenson’s vision for the memorial may not be getting skeptical Southern whites to acknowledge its legitimacy. Instead, the most challenging facet may be the one that holds the most promise for reconciliation in the communities where lynchings took place: local memorials.
"Nkyinkim," a sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Transatlantic slave trade. Duplicates of more than 800 steel monuments representing victims of lynching in the United States have been placed in a field behind the the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The monuments await being claimed and installed in the counties they represent.
As part of his plan — incorporating an element that is at once visionary, courageous, and provocative — Stevenson commissioned an identical set of coffin-shaped boxes to match the steel boxes that hang in the memorial, inscribed with the name of a county and, beneath it, the names of lynching victims murdered therein. Each matching pillar is meant to be taken to its respective county and displayed in a public space as an acknowledgment of the awful crimes which it remembers.
But EJI has put together a daunting process for counties to acquire those memorials, a process meant to encourage the formation of a multiracial coalition that would confront the legacy of racial terror. While EJI says that it is “working with” several counties to place those memorials, none has yet been claimed.
My home of Monroe County has, so far, no such coalition, no working group, no formal application for its marker. Indeed, local officials seemed puzzled by how to proceed — or reluctant even to discuss any plan. The chief of the county commission, Probate Judge Greg Norris, a Democrat, said he had not yet visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and couldn’t render any judgment on a local memorial for Monroe County. The Democratic nominee to replace him (Norris will retire at the end of the year), attorney Sonya Green Stinson, practically bolted from me as I tried to ask her questions about the memorial.
“That is not something I can make a statement on right now, being in the middle of an election,” she said. “Anything I say, somebody is going to be mad about it.”
Erecting a duplicate memorial is a politically fraught issue for both Greg Norris, top, outgoing probate judge, and Sonya Green Stinson, left, who bids to replace him.
In the 1980s, when Stevenson was still a young lawyer, his legal advocacy both inspired gratitude and provoked controversy here. In his award-winning 2014 memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson recounts his work to exonerate Walter McMillian, who was wrongly convicted of a Monroeville murder and sentenced to death. Writing about the case, Stevenson acknowledges the power of Lee’s much-beloved novel but argues that Monroeville learned nothing from her tale.
“Monroeville, Alabama, celebrated its native daughter Lee shamelessly after her award-winning book became a national bestseller in the 1960s. … Her reclusiveness proved no barrier to the county’s continued efforts to market her literary classic — or to market itself by using the book’s celebrity ...
“Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no root. The story of an innocent black man bravely defended by a white lawyer in the 1930s fascinated millions of readers, despite its uncomfortable exploration of false accusations of rape involving a white woman ...
“Today, dozens of legal organizations hand out awards in the fictional lawyer’s name (Atticus Finch) to celebrate the model of advocacy described in Lee’s novel. What is often overlooked is Atticus did not successfully defend the black man falsely accused in the story. Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black defendant, is found guilty,” Stevenson pointed out.
The Old Monroe County Courthouse serves as a museum for tourists and Harper Lee fans who flock to Monroeville throughout the year. The courtroom of the Old Monroe County Courthouse was carefully recreated on a soundstage in Hollywood for the famous courtroom scenes in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
After a two-day trial in 1988, McMillian was convicted for the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison during what authorities surmised was a robbery of a dry-cleaning business that went badly awry. Morrison was working in the shop on that fateful Saturday morning. The murder was so shocking that my mother called me in Atlanta, where I lived then, to tell me about it.
After months went by with no arrest, local authorities’ desperation to finger a suspect was matched only by a bias that easily dragooned a black man. McMillian was arrested and shunted off to prison — placed on death row in Alabama’s notorious Holman Correctional Facility even before his trial started — on dubious testimony and no hard evidence.
Monroeville’s poorly-trained law enforcement officers had destroyed the crime scene with their shoddy methods, and they ignored several witnesses who said that McMillian was elsewhere during the murder. Instead, police encouraged testimony from a white offender whose claims were wildly far-fetched. And, in their haste to frame McMillian, prosecutors violated countless legal and ethical standards, including withholding evidence. A white police officer, Woodrow Ikner, was kicked off the police force after he refused to give perjured testimony implicating McMillian.
McMillian told Stevenson that the local sheriff, Tom Tate, used racial epithets and threatened him with lynching when he made the arrest. In his memoir, Stevenson recounts Tate’s threats this way: “ ‘We’re going to keep all you niggers from running around with these white girls. I ought to take you off and hang you like we done that nigger in Mobile.’ ”
As Stevenson notes, Tate was referring to the murder of 19-year-old Michael Donald, who was lynched in Mobile in 1981, as racial resentment ran high among some whites following the acquittal of a black man for the shooting of a white police officer. Donald was not involved in the case; angry members of the Ku Klux Klan randomly grabbed him off the street, beat him, slit his throat and hanged his body from a tree. Donald’s murder marked the last known lynching of a black person in America.
By the time McMillian was released from prison, he had served nearly six years for a crime he did not commit. And Stevenson and his colleagues had endured harassment and bomb threats for daring to represent him. The trial judge had made an extraordinary — and highly unethical — phone call to Stevenson to try to persuade him not to take the case on appeal.
“Bryan, this is Robert E. Lee Key. Why in the hell would you want to represent someone like Walter McMillian? Do you know he’s reputed to be one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South Alabama? I got your notice entering an appearance, but you don’t want anything to do with this case,” Stevenson recounted in his memoir.
McMillian’s only crime seemed to be a violation of local social norms: Before his arrest, he had been romantically involved with a married white woman. When he was released from prison, some of the white townsfolk were not ready to admit that he had been wronged. That included Sheriff Tate, according to Just Mercy.
In 2013, McMillian died a broken man. Tate, by contrast, still serves as sheriff of Monroe County. (Never defeated for re-election, he will retire in December after serving for 30 years.) And no one in power — not the sheriff or the district attorney or the Alabama State Legislature — has ever apologized for the wrongful conviction. The legacy of the gross injustice perpetrated against McMillian, like the lynchings of the distant past, lives on, unacknowledged by the broader community.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in an era in which many Americans are reopening the chapters of history that distort or burnish or misrepresent the past. You need look no further than the raucous debates over Confederate monuments, in which activists of all colors have confronted the myth of the Lost Cause, which treats treason as honorable while ignoring the enslavement of Africans.
The period that followed Reconstruction was also ugly and violent — and less understood than the Civil War. After federal troops left the South, white Southerners managed to reconstruct their political, economic, and social domination through legislation, judicial rulings, and legally sanctioned savagery. Lynchings were a favored tactic for spreading fear among any black residents who may have rebelled.
Stevenson has spoken passionately about the need for communities to engage in conversations, painful though they may be, about the sins of the past.
“When people say, ‘Do you want a National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation?,’ I really don’t. I don’t think it would be effective,” he said in April. “It needs to be local. It’s when a community, when a county, comes together and starts talking about these issues that you can see things happen. That’s when the people you know, the people you went to school with are having conversations they haven’t had before that you create real change.”
Perhaps my hometown can eventually find its way to such a dialogue, but the public conversation about Monroe County’s history of lynchings started on a starkly different note. It began with a series of angry letters to the editor in response to a news story about the National Memorial.
Steve Stacey, a 72-year-old part-time researcher at the small public library here, was infuriated by the May 10 account in The Monroe Journal, the local weekly. In his view, it validated murderers and celebrated rapists. So, he wrote a letter to the editor to set the record straight.
“... Obviously, the organizers of the Legacy Museum sought to bring attention to the horror of lynching and other forms of racial terrorism. While the story needs to be told and understood, I question the agenda of glorifying murderers and rapists to tell a story. The (newspaper) included them in the list of victims. They were criminals,” he wrote.
Steve Stacey, a part-time researcher for the Monroe County Public Library, takes issue with the motives of certain people whose names are on the national memorial.
Alluding to a particularly gruesome episode in which four black men were lynched in 1892 for allegedly killing a white woman and her father, Stacey wrote: “All four of the men involved in the 1892 incident at Lower Peach Tree are rapists and murderers. They attacked an elderly man, Richard Johnston, by striking him in the head with an ax. Next, they raped his daughter and drug the bodies into their home and set fire to it. ... Today, the Legacy museum honors and glorifies four murderers and rapists from this incident.”
No, responded Greg Marshall, who wrote his own letter to the editor. Marshall, who is a black retired Army major, had previously had run-ins with Stacey, who is white, over issues of history, memory, and the use of public spaces to commemorate the Confederacy. Stacey’s letter, Marshall said in an interview, “infuriated me ... I said to myself, ‘How dare this man speak of memorializing rapists and murderers after what his ancestors did?’ Back then, we had no due process. We weren’t good enough to put in the justice system. We got white mobs that came into our houses and pulled us out and lynched us.”
Greg Marshall, a retired Army Major, rebutted Stacey's claim on historical grounds.
Marshall’s letter, published on May 31, echoes that sentiment. “Apparently, he (Stacey) failed to do his research correctly,” Marshall wrote. “More often than not, blacks and slaves were never given due process. They were shot, hung, drowned, or murdered by angry white mobs. It was common knowledge (that) blacks and slaves weren’t worthy of due process in court.
“People like this person (Stacey),” Marshall continued, “are exactly what keeps Monroe County from moving forward.”
How could those conflicting narratives ever be reconciled?
To that end, EJI has started to put together a complex process for claiming county markers, a time-consuming and cumbersome mechanism meant to ensure broad participation in an effort that will show lasting results. Communities are guided toward smaller steps first: assembling a multiracial coalition of citizens, collecting soil samples near lynching sites, and erecting smaller historic markers at each site.
But gaining permission from the EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, even for those smaller historic markers, requires local communities to be thoughtful, patient and inclusive around the fraught subject of racial history. EJI’s application requires coalition leaders to answer questions like these:
“How have you and your coalition engaged in conversations about race and poverty, and the influence and impact of white supremacy in our nation within your community? What, if any, prior efforts in this county and/or community have taken place over the last 10 years related to reckoning with the history of racial terrorism ...? How does your coalition plan to handle and/or mitigate resistance to this effort?”
Billy Ghee, a Monroe County commissioner, here in the commission's meeting room, is the driving force behind bringing a lynching memorial from Montgomery to Monroe County.
Billy Ghee, a county commissioner, envisions placing Monroe County’s lynching memorial outside a public building which once housed a courthouse here. Ghee, who has served in the office for 12 years, is one of two black commissioners on the five-member body. He has contacted EJI about the guidelines for its Community Remembrance Project, but he hasn’t yet spoken to his fellow commissioners about it. He’d be “shocked,” he said, if there were no support for starting the process to claim the steel box.
As Ghee sees it, the memorial pillar would complement the town’s tiny tourism industry, which relies almost exclusively on marketing To Kill a Mockingbird.
“I think it would go hand-in-hand over there, “ he said. “They say tourism brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.”
The courthouse building that was in use during Lee’s childhood has been repurposed as a museum, gift shop, and meeting space; its upstairs courtroom serves as the theater for the final scene of a play based on the novel, which local folk usually put on every spring. A poster in the “old courthouse,” as the building is referred to here, shows a photograph of Lee walking in downtown Monroeville with the actor Gregory Peck, who portrayed her father in the 1962 film based on the book.
If Monroe County were to complete the process of reconciliation that Stevenson envisions, the pillar may one day, indeed, hang outside the courthouse building that is now a celebration of the idealism of Lee’s novel. A commemoration of lynching victims would not offer the same tone of optimism, but it would hold forth a compelling truth.