A Noose at the Smithsonian Brings History Back to Life, The New York Times

The New York Times, Lonnie G. Bunch
June 23, 2017

"The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.

The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.

That display, like the museum as a whole, powerfully juxtaposes two visions of America: one shaped by racism, violence and terror, and one shaped by a belief in an America where freedom and fairness reign. I see the nooses as evidence that those visions continue to battle in 2017 and that the struggle for the soul of America continues to this very day.

The people responsible knew that their acts would not be taken lightly. A noose is a symbol of the racial violence and terror that African-Americans have confronted throughout American history and of the intensity of resistance we’ve faced to any measure of racial equality. During slavery, one of the main purposes of lynching was to deter the enslaved from escaping to freedom. But lynching did not end with slavery; it was also a response to the end of slavery. It continued from the 1880s until after the end of World War I, with more than 100 people lynched each year. So prevalent was this atrocity that between 1920 and 1938, the N.A.A.C.P. displayed a banner at its national headquarters that read simply, “A man was lynched yesterday.”

Lynching was not just a phenomenon of the American South or the Ku Klux Klan. And in many places, as black people fought for inclusion in American life, lynchings became brutal spectacles, drawing thousands of onlookers who posed for photographs with the lifeless bodies. This collective memory explains why the noose has become a symbol of white supremacy and racial intimidation."