The writing on the wall outside asks that visitors be quiet and respectful. The words are a gentle reminder that this is no benign exhibition of pretty nature photographs, although there are many trees in these pictures. Inside the small gallery, the only ones ignoring the request are two restless, talkative toddlers in strollers, gliding along well below the rows of framed photos. At lunchtime on a sunny Wednesday in May, more than twenty people have made their way into the close, black-walled room, blinking as their eyes adjust to the dimness. Abruptly, the somber mood is jarred by an African-American man who suddenly strides for the exit. “I’ll be outside,” he says loudly to a companion over his shoulder. “I’ve had enough!”

Many visitors quickly come to feel they have had enough of “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” an exhibition co-presented by Emory and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. Some viewers have admitted it took weeks to steel themselves to come and see it. To stumble into the show unknowingly would be like tripping over a dead body in a public park. The graphic images of hanged, burned, and mutilated corpses are profoundly terrible to look at; worse, they are almost impossible to forget.

Yet more than twelve thousand people did come to see them during the first three weeks of the exhibition alone. It is precisely because of their deeply disturbing nature that Emory leaders, after some two years of careful consideration, decided to help mount these thirty-six photographs in Atlanta for public view.

Emory’s role in sponsoring the lynching exhibition is, in part, “an outgrowth of the University’s Year of Reconciliation, and the efforts made here to come to terms with what we once were, what we ought to be, and how we reconcile the decent within all of us with the hateful,” says President William M. Chace.

The collection of lynching photography belongs to Atlantans James Allen and John Littlefield, who have permanently loaned the pictures to the Emory libraries’ Special Collections. In “Without Sanctuary,” which first opened in New York, they are mounted simply, displayed alongside textual descriptions and a wealth of supporting materials. Over the last decade, Allen and Littlefield have amassed some 150 photographs, most of which were snapped at lynching events–where crowds of hundreds, even thousands, of onlookers might gather to enjoy the spectacle–and then sold as souvenirs or sent to relatives.

Now these cast-aside keepsakes, once treated as carelessly as Southern black life itself, are being viewed with a different purpose: to promote knowledge and healing among the bearers of this dark legacy.

Such regeneration does not come without pain. In the months leading up to the exhibition, a committee led by Thee Smith, associate professor of religion and deacon of St. Phillips Cathedral, held a series of forums to gather reaction to the prospect. Some in the University argued that to dig up and display such unspeakable horrors could only cause more harm; others worried that the exhibition would create a sense of atonement too cheaply won.

But leaders both within Emory and from the outside community have implored Southerners to look upon this brutal chapter of their past with open eyes and honest hearts.

“As we learn and as we teach our learning,” said President Chace at the opening ceremony May 1, “we at times must–if we are honest–confront the terrifying. We must learn how at times people have behaved, very badly behaved. Our only comfort comes from our knowledge that people have not always behaved badly. That comfort can come from, among other places, the vision of the man [King] whose body lies interred across the street.”

One oft-cited reason for mounting the “Without Sanctuary” exhibition is that much like Nazi Holocaust documentation, the lynching photographs provide a visual record of wrongs that cannot be denied. Although such extralegal “mob justice” killings were not confined to a period, place, or race, an estimated five thousand blacks died at the hands of whites in the South between 1882 and 1968.

Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote, “There are those Americans who still wish to deny, to equivocate, to dispute the savage history of American racism. They will not want to see ‘Without Sanctuary.’ . . . It would rob them of their defenses.”

Perhaps even more chilling than the images of dangling bodies are the hundreds of white faces gathered to watch the ritual killings, their rapt, expectant faces frozen forever on film. Men, women, even children of barely two generations ago point and smile as if they’re watching a hog tie at the county fair, not a human life ending in degradation and agony. “Their beaming faces,” wrote Tucker, “bear witness to their depraved souls.”

Just as African Americans now must experience the pain that comes of identifying with the victims, so must whites endure the sting of recognition, says Smith. But the potential for progress is great.

“This exhibition could provide the catalyst for a kind of breakthrough on race awareness in the U.S. like nothing else has been able to do,” Smith says. “As white Americans have reported to me, they see themselves in those photographs in a way they never have before. They look at those bystanders and see their aunts, uncles, people who could have been their own family members, and say, how could we have been party to this kind of violence?”

When visitors leave “Without Sanctuary,” they find themselves facing a wall bearing the first verse of the poem “Strange Fruit,” written in 1937 by a Jewish schoolteacher from New York and put to music two years later by blues legend Billie Holiday. The words are brought to lurid life by the images inside the gallery: “Southern trees bear 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.”

The song and the pictures seem to drive irrevocably home the stark, shocking truth of lynching in the South: No matter how much talking, weeping, and memorializing we do, those faces and the shameful scars they passed on cannot be erased from our history. At the opening ceremony of “Without Sanctuary,” where a crowd of several hundred, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, were gathered, Smith offered a benediction that expressed what can be hoped for instead.

“In search of sanctuary,” he said, “if you are a praying person, pray on behalf of the victims, that there may be justice on the earth. If you are a forgiving person, forgive the perpetrators for the sake of the possibility of rehabilitation. If you are a generous person, grant to the photographers the possibility of undeserved grace: that their images and craft may be used for nobler causes today.

“And if you are a self-loving person, let’s work together to rescue ourselves and our children from the fate of becoming bystanders in a world without sanctuary.”–P.P.P.



“Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” will be on display in the Visitor Center at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, 450 Auburn Avenue Northeast, Atlanta, May 1 to December 31. Volunteers are needed through the run of the exhibition to serve as docents, lead dialogue groups, provide listener support, and staff events such as the film series and conference. Professional training will be provided, focusing on historical facts behind the materials as well as skills for effectively dealing with the emotions raised in viewers. Volunteers may continue to attend monthly training sessions as needed. Inquiries about volunteering should be directed to the Volunteer Coordinator, or 404.727.0991. For more about the MLK Jr. historic site, go to For more about the exhibition, go to