As chair of the “Lynching and Racial Violence in America:
Histories and Legacies” conference committee, I have had the
great privilege to collaborate with individuals from offices and
departments across campus: anthropology, English, the Graduate Institute
of the Liberal Arts, history, the Institute of Women’s Studies,
the Program of African American Studies, theater studies, Special
Collections, the Office of Religious Life and the Office of the
All of these colleagues have demonstrated their unwavering commitment
to create a conference of depth and seriousness that complements
“Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,”
the national exhibition on display at the Martin Luther King Jr.
National Historic Site until Dec. 31. Guided by the highest standards,
members of the conference committee have created a conference that
accomplishes, we believe, several goals.
The first is to provide a thoughtful and rigorous framework for
examining the realities of lynching and other forms of racial violence
in the United States, not only for Emory students and alumni, but
for their counterparts at neighboring institutions in Atlanta and
These are realities that most Americans would deny or turn away
from, but through the plenary addresses, panels and a newly commissioned
theatrical production featuring Emory faculty and students—as
well as other scholars and activists from the United States and
abroad—I believe we have provided an educational framework
for engaging these realities, thereby providing a means to engage
more productively the complex histories and legacies that inform
the lives of each American.
In the planning and organization of this conference, I have grown
more appreciative and aware of the many strengths specific to a
research university, strengths that have enabled us to mount an
impressive gathering of scholars, representing many disciplines
and fields, who will join us in our ongoing efforts to interrogate
the dark realities of lynching and racial violence through our own
teaching and scholarship.
My colleagues and I on the conference committee take pride in the
fact that Emory will host this event, for our location in the South—a
region with its own very particular history of racial violence—positions
us to provide leadership in shaping the national and international
dialogue on this controversial topic. Certainly, it must be recalled
in the weeks before the conference that the leadership on this vital
matter was provided at every turn by President Bill Chace.
Of course, at each stage in our deliberations members of the conference
committee had always as our touchstone the exhibition itself. After
successful runs at the New York Historical Society and the Andy
Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, “Without Sanctuary” opened
in May with a beautifully choreographed ritual of remembrance that
involved not only many Emory faculty, but also religious leaders
representing Atlanta’s many faith communities. The exhibit
has attracted large audiences; July attendance exceeded 100,000
Keenly aware of the national interest of this exhibition, curated
by Joseph Jordan of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
an additional goal of the conference committee was to collaborate
with Frank Catroppa, superintendent of the King National Historic
Site. While we understand that it is best for others to determine
how successful we will have been in realizing this goal, I can state
that we entered into the process of collaboration fully and completely,
with the objective of organizing a conference that is in conversation
with the exhibition and that examines the many difficult themes
and questions that the exhibition, with all its force and power,
continually and relentlessly poses.
The conference committee’s second goal of planning a substantive
collaboration between Emory and the King National Historic Site
has expanded to include colleagues from the Atlanta University Center,
Georgia State University, the University of Georgia and the High
Museum of Art. In other words, the conference has become a site
of collaboration with many of Georgia’s most important educational
and cultural institutions, along with the several communities they
represent. These are communities in which Emory endeavors to be
a conscientious and contributing member, and the international conference
on lynching and racial violence will be an occasion, I predict,
for reaffirming our ties and responsibilities to these communities.
Of course, the conference committee had several other goals, but
the two I have mentioned here are perhaps most important. In necessarily
focusing upon the goals of the conference, my colleagues and I also
have reflected upon the effects beyond these rather praiseworthy
goals—that is to say, the hoped for consequences of such an
ambitious and controversial undertaking.
Certainly, it is our hope that the conference and the collaboration
with the King National Historic Site represents something approaching
continuity in our institutional commitment to explore seriously
the processes of reconciliation, a commitment and concept that formed
the basis for considerable dialogue among and between the University’s
many programs, departments and schools not so long ago. More, it
is our hope that the conference will enhance Emory’s reputation
and standing in the region and the nation, for we are, as a university,
no longer the insular and (some would charge) unreconstructed institution
we once were.
Above all, it is our hope that this conference—to date the
only conference associated with the exhibition in any of its iterations—will
demonstrate again the commitment we share as members of a research
university to creatively deploy our considerable talent and resources
to interrogate horrendous, unspeakable realities that we look away
from at our peril.
All great universities are always about the difficult and unpopular
work of uncomfortable learning, by which I mean the examination
of positions and texts which challenge and defy our core beliefs.
The subject and focus of this international conference is an instance
of uncomfortable learning.
Finally, while intent upon realizing our charge as a committee,
my colleagues and I have been conscious always of the genesis of
the work we agreed to undertake on behalf of the Emory community,
the communities of Atlanta and the dead whose images rise before
us in each photograph in “Without Sanctuary.” The genesis
of our work began with the commitment of James Allen and John Littlefield
to assemble, through their collection of lynching photographs, a
record of a national crime by which we are still plagued.
For the Allen-Littlefield Collection—currently on loan to
Special Collections—and all the many instances of teaching
and learning that flow from it, the exhibition and now the conference,
we shall be always indebted to Messrs. Allen and Littlefield.