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April 29, 2002

Lynching exhibit opens May 1

By Michael Terrazas


More than two years in the making, an exhibit that is as superlative as it is horrifying opens this week at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, as “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” finally makes its way into public view in the South, beginning May 1.

The exhibit is based on a collection of photographs, on permanent loan to Special Collections, owned by Atlantans James Allen and John Littlefield. It chronicles the shame and degradation of a peculiarly American shade of violence—at a venue dedicated to an American who pledged his life to nonviolence. Emory is one of the show’s sponsors, along with the MLK Jr. National Historic Site, a unit of the National Parks Service.

But the exhibit encompasses much more than simply photographs. Also on display is ample description to provide context to the images, in addition to historical artifacts and memorabilia documenting anti-lynching movements, international reaction to American lynchings, artistic statements on the practice, and other educational materials. Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, curated the exhibit.

“I am deeply proud and grateful,” Allen said at a press preview last week. “I challenge every white journalist [covering this exhibit] to remove the filters and ... be truly objective. Everything that comes out [in the media] in this country is put through a white filter.”

The exhibit is contained in a single room of black-painted walls, which are lined with the images and their descriptions. Several glass-enclosed cases stand on the floor, and the room’s audio system plays an eerie combination of chirping crickets and cicadas—the soundtrack to a Southern summer night—and Negro spirituals.

“This is the kind of thing we imagined,” said religion Associate Professor Thee Smith, who chaired the committee charged with doing some institutional soul-searching as it measured whether the exhibit was something with which the University wanted to get involved.

“Immense satisfaction and pride that so many people of so many sorts have worked so hard to make this important event possible,” said President Bill Chace when asked his emotions on the eve of the event he supported from the beginning. “People from every walk of life will be able to profit from the exhibition.”

Perhaps, but this particular showing of the photographs—which previously have been exhibited in New York and Philadelphia—is geared toward providing an opportunity for spiritual healing to Southerners, both black and white.

According to Allen, of the (conservatively) estimated 4,743 lynchings that took place in America from 1882 to 1968, more than 90 percent occurred in the South. “And if they dredged the rivers,” Allen said, “that figure would be higher.”

In fact, Smith said he hopes to use the exhibit as a springboard for answering a charge posed to Emory by Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he was in residence: “He challenged us to look into issues of race in America much like South Africa did with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Smith said, adding that possibilities include extending invitations to the families of people involved in lynchings, both perpetrators and victims, to come together in a spirit of exoneration and open disclosure.

But that, Smith admitted, is likely far in the future. Meanwhile, “Without Sanctuary” opens this Wednesday with a full slate of planned events. An opening ceremony will be held at noon, May 1, in the Visitor Center Rose Garden at the Historic Site, located at 450 Auburn Ave.

At 2 p.m., there will be a screening of Ida B. Wells: Passion for Justice, a film about the late journalist and anti-lynching crusader, followed by a discussion led by Clarissa Myrick-Harris, professor of Africana studies at Morris Brown College. Another film screening, this time of Strange Fruit, will be held at 4 p.m., followed by discussion with director Joel Katz, curator Joseph Jordan and Dwight Andrews, professor of music at Emory. Both films will be shown in the Historic Site’s Visitor Center theater.

Finally, at 7 p.m. that evening at Ebenezer Baptist Church (located at 407 Auburn Ave., adjacent to the Historic Site) an interfaith memorial service will be held.

Admission to all events and parking are free. For more information, contact the Historic Site at 404-331-5190. The exhibit also has a website, located at