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Getting Our Hands Around the Truth of America’s Legacy of Lynching

A Q&A with Sherrilyn Ifill


The racial trauma of lynching, which took the lives of 5,000 African Americans between 1890 and 1960, still resonates across the United States today. In the newly revised edition of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, offers concrete ways for communities with histories of racial violence to heal. A clarion call for our troubling times, this edition features a new foreword by Equal Justice Initiative founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson. It also features a new afterword in which Ifill reflects on the recent strides made throughout the country to break the silence surrounding lynching and to recognize the victims of violence. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with her to chat about the book.

Christian Coleman: Why did you feel it was important to do a revised edition of On the Courthouse Lawn?   

Sherrilyn Ifill: Our national engagement with this history of lynching is a process, and so I think it’s important to offer new opportunities to new generations of readers who want—or maybe will discover they need—to learn more about this important part of our past.

CC: What are some changes of our country’s attitude toward its history of lynching since the initial publication of the book? 

SI: Thanks to the many books that were published around the same time as On the Courthouse Lawn, and due largely to the Lynching Project launched by Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative, there is a greater willingness, I think, to recognize lynching as a kind of seismic and defining aspect of American history and identity. Lynching is not a series of “incidents.” Lynching is a unique and powerful historical phenomenon that defined race in twentieth-century America and continues to shape our understanding of who we are as a nation.

CC: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum opened this April in Montgomery, Alabama, and we still have monuments honoring the Confederacy. How do we deal with this conflict of racial reconciliation and acknowledging our history? 

SI: We deal with it by getting our hands around the truth. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because lynchings were too often delegated to the status of “ghost stories.” I wanted to provide a detailed historical account and to explore, as I do in the book, the implication of democratic institutions in abetting violent and odious acts of racial terror. So it’s truth-telling first and foremost—whether about the white supremacist foundation of the Confederacy, the lie of the “Lost Cause,” or the suppression of the history of how domestic racial terrorism shaped America in the twentieth century.

CC: What would you like readers to take away from the book during our current administration?       

SI: A key impetus for me in writing the book was my own effort to understand how ordinary white people—housewives and pharmacists and law students and law enforcement—could participate in, cheer on, or even just observe without intervention, the most horrifying acts of cruelty and savagery imposed on other people. I’m obsessed with the process, danger, and consequences of “othering” fellow human beings. There are profound lessons for us at this precise and dangerous moment in America to understand how this happens and how we become complicit in acts of terror. Most of all, I hope we can think more carefully about how our institutions—media, the justice system, government—must be equipped and prepared to help democratic societies forestall a descent into our worst impulses.


About Sherrilyn Ifill 

Noted civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill is the seventh President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and former professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. Ifill is a nationally recognized advocate for civil rights, voting rights, and judicial diversity. She is the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century. Follow her on Twitter at @Sifill_LDF.