Remembering What We’d Rather Forget

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.

Who living among us today will be celebrated during Black History Month years from now? I hope Bryan Stevenson will be one of them. A lawyer from Alabama, Mr. Stevenson is having an influence across the nation and right here in Joplin.

I was first made aware of Mr. Stevenson when I watched his Ted Talk, “We Need to Talk about an Injustice,” back in 2014. I learned of his fight to stop persistent bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice. Then, in September of last year, Mr. Stevenson’s work as founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) was featured prominently in the national magazine, Christianity Today. The article mentioned two projects underway at EJI. Both got my attention.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

One is The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, expected to open later this year, which is informally becoming known as the National Lynching Memorial.  Over 4000 illegal racial terror lynchings of African-Americans, from across several states, are being memorialized in Montgomery, AL, by hundreds of floating concrete columns representing the counties where the lynchings occurred. In addition, a second set of these columns is also being created with the intent that they eventually find a home in the actual counties where the lynchings occurred.

EJI exhibit with shelves containing jars filled with soil from lynching sites.

The second, The EJI Soil Collection Project, is an effort to gather soil from every known location where these lynchings occurred to be part of an exhibit in EJI’s planned museum in Montgomery, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

Both of these projects are relevant for Joplin, because ours is a city wherein a fairly well-known illegal racial terror lynching occurred. On April 15, 1903, according to local news reports, “an infuriated mob of several hundred men battered down the wall of the city jail and dragged Thomas Gilyard, a 20-year-old negro, charged with murdering a policeman, and in broad daylight hanged him to a telephone pole two blocks from the jail in the heart of Joplin.”

Accused of shooting a police officer, Mr. Gilyard never got a fair trial. And the terror message spread to the entire black community. After lynching Mr. Gilyard, the mob raided Joplin’s black district, firing guns, burning homes, and threatening to drive every black resident from Joplin. One news article reporting on the violence claimed “police were powerless” to stop the attack.

Because of Mr. Gilyard’s murder, Jasper County will soon have a floating concrete column on display in Montgomery, AL, and a corresponding one that could be brought back here to display, as well. I hope that happens. I also hope soil collected from the 200 block of West 2nd street, where Mr. Gilyard was killed, will be sent to Montgomery for EJI’s soil collection project. Perhaps the soil could be collected on the 115th anniversary of Mr. Gilyard’s murder, April 15, 2018.

Mr. Gilyard’s was just one of 60 documented racial terror lynchings in Missouri from 1879 to 1942. I’m grateful for Mr. Stevenson’s work in remembering the sins of our past and in fighting for a better future for us all. Both are essential lest we repeat atrocities many would just as soon forget.

About Travis Hurley

Travis Hurley is the director of the Dream of Destiny Initiative, because he is convinced that visible unity – unity that the world can see crossing ethnic, socioeconomic, generational and denominational lines – is a powerful testimony of the power of the Gospel of Jesus to reconcile people to Him and to each other.

A graduate of Ozark Christian College and Cincinnati Christian University, Travis has been working in multi-ethnic ministry for over 15 years. He is a Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Leadership in Multiethnic Contexts from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Travis continues to teach and consult on issues of unity and diversity in the body of Christ.

Travis and his wife Dena have been married for over 20 years. They have four children, two sons-in-law, and two grandkids.

For more information, or to have Travis come speak, contact him at travishurley94@gmail.com.

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