By JEAN DRISKELL, Special to the Bulletin | Published January 12, 2017
DECATUR—The Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary, Court 313, at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur, held their annual prayer breakfast, a scholarship fundraiser, at St. Peter Claver Regional School gym on Nov. 12. The theme was “Heeding God’s Call for Mercy.”
The breakfast was held in November to coincide with Black Catholic History Month, a commemoration begun by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, said Joi Hatch Parks, grand lady of the auxiliary court.
“This is part of our long history and proud heritage of black Catholics. We celebrate the presence of our ancestors who kept the faith and are models of living the Christian faith.”
The breakfast also coincided with the closing month of the Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis to emphasize God’s merciful love and the call to be merciful to others.
Special guests included Charles Prejean, former director of black Catholic ministry for the archdiocese, and his wife, Carmen; Ashley Morris, associate director of the archdiocesan Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity; state Sen. Gail Davenport, (D-44); U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, (D-4th District); DeKalb County Police Maj. K.D. Johnson; DeKalb County Judge and Mrs. Gregory Adams; DeKalb CEO Lee May; Teresa Hardy, DeKalb NAACP president; Nadine Ali, DeKalb NAACP assistant treasurer; and Shawn Craig, assistant to DeKalb District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson.
Documenting history of lynching
Kiara Boone, deputy program manager of the Equal Justice Initiative, was the guest speaker. EJI is a private, nonprofit organization committed to ending mass incarcerations, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society. The organization brings awareness to the realities of slavery, lynchings and other hate crimes, and the injustices adults and children of color experience in the criminal justice system.
Prior to joining EJI, she worked with the National Coalition for the Homeless, Washington, D.C., and managed support for community development in Florida for the Jessie Ball duPont Fund.
Her work at EJI includes a project to erect historical markers at sites related to enslavement and lynching, and content development for a proposed new museum entitled “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” and a national memorial to the victims of lynchings, both in Montgomery, Alabama.
“As a country we view being great really well,” Boone said. “We like to excel, we like to talk about how powerful we are, how dominant we are, and how exceptional we are.”
“But what we don’t like to talk about are the things in which we are not as exceptional,” she said. “That includes the legacy of genocide, of slavery, of lynchings, of Jim Crow segregation, and today, of mass incarcerations.”
Of the slave era, Boone said that besides backbreaking labor, enslaved people had to endure humiliation and hurt of being torn away from their families. Those advocating for slavery said that black people were inherently inferior to white people and needed slavery to discipline and civilize them for their own good.
“These stereotypes did not end when slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation,” she said. “In the years following the end of slavery we get things like convict leasing, where African-Americans were arrested for minor crimes like loitering or vagrancies.”
Boone said that convicts were then leased to mining companies and forced to work in the mines.
“During the era of racial terrorism from Reconstruction, around 1877, up until 1950, EJI documented over 4,000 racial terror lynchings, including over 500 here in the state of Georgia,” Boone said. “These lynchings were for minor social transgressions, such as not saying ‘yes, sir’ or ‘no, sir’ to a police officer.”
“Racial terror lynchings” were instances where victims were killed by a mob, outside any justice system, often without even being accused of a crime. The violence was intended to terrorize people and contributed to the mass migration of African-Americans from the South to the North.
Terror to enforce racial hierarchy
She described the case of a Birmingham, Alabama, woman Elizabeth Lawrence, in 1933, who was lynched after reprimanding a group of white children who taunted her and threw rocks at her as she was walking home from work. A mob formed, took Lawrence from her house, lynched her, and burned her house down. Her son, Alexander, came home and tried to file a police report, but the same mob tried to lynch him. He was able to escape to Boston.
“Lynchings weren’t just people being strung from trees,” she said. “In our research we uncovered newspaper articles where the bodies were riddled with bullets. These lynchings were happening in broad daylight on courthouse lawns.”
Boone said that it wasn’t just the Ku Klux Klan but also prominent and everyday Americans who took part. Many times the bodies were left in front of African-American churches or homes, she said.
This was “a way of saying this person stepped outside of the racial hierarchy,” she said, “and if anyone else dare to do so, these are the type of consequences that you will face.”
“After an era of racial terror lynchings, the violence toward African-Americans did not end,” Boone said. “There were years and years of violence, of murders, of hate crimes toward African-Americans who dared to say we are citizens and we deserve to be here and we are entitled to the same rights as everyone else.”
“An opportunity to tell the truth”
She said that in today’s criminal justice system a person of color is six times as likely to be sentenced to jail or prison as a white person.
“The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently came out with a report that said one in three African-American boys is expected to be in jail or prison throughout his lifetime. The statistic is one in six for Latino boys and the statistic is one in 17 for white children,” Boone said.
“We (EJI) work with children in the criminal justice system,” she said. “Right now there are about 3,000 kids under the age of 18 who have been sentenced to life without parole in this country.”
Boone said that many of the children who are incarcerated are jailed or imprisoned with adults and are more likely to be victims of assault and abuse.
“When we transfer a child from juvenile court to adult court,” she said, “you are essentially saying you are now fit to stand trial as an adult and the sentences that adults receive you are now eligible to receive. That is how we get into this situation of condemning them to die in prison.”
“And that makes no sense,” Boone said. “You have to be a certain age to vote, to see an R-rated movie, to get married. All these other ways in society we recognize that children are different. They need our protection. They need our guidance. They have the capacity to change. In the criminal justice system we have taken that away.”
She continued, “America is afraid of what will happen if it admits that we did these horrible things to our people.”
“One of the things that I think the faith community teaches us is that there is such a thing as forgiveness,” Boone said, “that there is such a thing as healing. We (EJI) are trying to give America an opportunity to tell the truth about this past; to be honest about what has happened and to be honest about its continuing impact.”
She said that in order to get to reconciliation “we have to do the difficult work of truth telling. When you do the difficult work of truth telling, you also have to be open to the even harder work of compassion and mercy.”
“Heed the call to mercy, to love, to justice, to peace, and to advocate for those in our community who don’t have a voice,” Boone said, “to advocate for those in our community who have been broken down, hurt, marginalized and oppressed; to lift up their voices with ours to make it known that we are all interdependent, interconnected, and what happens to you happens to me.”
“You all have an opportunity to take the call to action and make it tangible, to make it concrete, to share it with others,” she said.
Equal Justice Initiative is located in Montgomery, Alabama. Contact www.eji.org or 334-269-1803.