Understanding the Greater History Behind Police Brutality

One of the many perks of being a first-year student at Duke is the Focus program, a semester long opportunity that allows small groups of students to live and take classes together. In the fall, I had the privilege of participating in the Knowledge in the Service of Society (KISS) Focus cluster, which included various classes on civic engagement and service. I really enjoyed the chance to take classes I likely wouldn’t have otherwise tried, classes that redefined how I thought about service and challenged how I’d like service to be a part of my life.

At the end of March, after the conclusion of our Focus experience, some fellow KISS participants and I went on a “Refocus Trip.” We embarked on a civil rights tour of the South, stopping in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia. Needless to say, the entirety of this trip was impactful. Just to list a few of our experiences, we stopped at Bryan Stevenson’s law firm, the Equal Justice Initiative, and spoke with some of the attorneys who work there; we toured various museums, including that of the Southern Poverty Law Center; we drove across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Selma to Montgomery marches for African Americans’ voting rights; and we attended a service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached.

The wall of soil samples from lynchings.

Upon walking into the room where we would have our discussion with EJI attorneys, many of my classmates and I stared, perplexed, at the back wall of the room. On shelves that covered nearly the entire length of the wall and scaled its whole height sat jars filled with an unknown substance, each labelled with a name. It wasn’t until later when we were told what was in the jars that their significance became apparent – each jar contained a sample of soil from the site of a lynching. Though difficult to swallow, the jars were a true testament to the troubled racial history of our country, and the work that is still to be done.

A 2016 article in Business Insider describes a United Nations report that includes the following statement: “Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching.” Though the United States may no longer have slavery or Jim Crow laws, it is essential to realize that many of the mechanisms that were present historically and that allowed such actions as lynching to happen are still in place. We do not live in a post-racial society – in fact, as the United Nations report suggests, we remain much closer to our history than we might have realized.

EJI’s planned memorial to lynching.

Though the Equal Justice Initiative is likely best known for its law services, EJI is also involved in activism and awareness. The jars to commemorate lynching victims are just one example. A memorial is in the works, too, which will also recognize those killed by lynching. Most notable about this memorial is a series of columns that will gradually be removed from the memorial and placed at the sites of the lynchings themselves, providing a needed marker at each place a lynching happened. Though more contemporary incidences of police brutality are widely publicized and recognized by news outlets and social media, EJI is working to make sure their historical counterpart, lynching, is as well.

One of my biggest takeaways from my time in Alabama and Georgia is the role that each of us plays in history and what we can do to shape the future. Trite as it may sound, the Civil Rights Movement was just that – a movement of people who were unsatisfied with their circumstances, present and historical, and who worked to make change. Nowhere was this more apparent than at sites such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Ebenezer Baptist Church. Likewise, the Equal Justice Initiative is a contemporary example, but one that inspires me just as much as any to engage in the problems our present-day society faces.

One thought on “Understanding the Greater History Behind Police Brutality

  • May 5, 2017 at 6:46 pm

    I remember Bryan Stevenson speaking about this initiative at his talk for “Just Mercy”. Since reading his book, I have really admired Stevenson’s work to confront past incidences of injustice and make them relevant to a supposedly “post – racial” society. I can only imagine the impact this trip made on you. I think it is important to bring recognition to an issue that was so prevalent throughout American history. I will be curious to see how EJI manages to get lynching sites to cooperate, but hopeful for their success.


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