As Missouri’s 200th anniversary of statehood draws near, the state’s Roman Catholic bishops see the need for a proper reckoning with grave acts of injustice of the past that continue to cast a shadow on the present.
In a Nov. 30 statement, the bishops, in their role as officers of the Missouri Catholic Conference, endorsed efforts to promote racial reconciliation and healing by publicly acknowledging and permanently memorializing the lynchings of African-Americans that took place during the state’s history.
“These evil acts of violence must be recognized and addressed in order for efforts to combat racism in our society and culture to bear fruit,” the bishops stated.
Lynchings were public acts of terror and violence committed by mobs against individuals in order to frighten people into submission.
They often involved humiliation and torture and ended in death, usually by hanging.
There were 60 African-American victims of lynching in Missouri between 1877 and 1950 — the second-highest number of any U.S. state, according to a six-year study by the Equal Justice Initiative (www.eji.org).
Lynchings were part of a pattern of systemic racial subordination in Missouri, which was admitted to the Union as a slave state in 1821.
Missouri’s first permanent historical memorial to one of the state’s African-American lynching victims was dedicated in Kansas City Dec. 1, the Kansas City Star reported.
Built by the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, the Missouri Conference of the NAACP, Missouri Faith Voices and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP) in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, the memorial acknowledges the lynching of Levi Harrington, who was killed in West Kansas City on April 3, 1882, according to the Star.
Memorials are being planned to mark the places where other lynchings took place.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (www.eji.org/national-lynching-memorial) was opened in Montgomery, Alabama, earlier this year as “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African-Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”
Missouri’s bishops, in their statement, said that by “permanently marking these horrific acts as events of historical significance, we can begin the process of acknowledgment and atonement that is necessary for us to move forward as a people dedicated to the idea that all men are created equally in the image and likeness of God.”
The state’s bishops referred to the document, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved during its Nov. 12-14 general meeting in Baltimore.
In that document, the U.S. bishops said expressions of racially motivated hatred in recent times make it clear that “racism still infects our nation.”
They cited as one reason the fact that “there has been very limited formal acknowledgement of the harm done to so many, no moment of atonement, no national process of reconciliation and, all too often a neglect of our history.”
By publicly acknowledging and permanently marking these historical acts of terror as events of historical significance, society can begin the process of acknowledgment and atonement.
Doing so “is necessary for us to move forward as a people dedicated to the idea that all men are created equally in the image and likeness of God,” Missouri’s bishops stated.
They acknowledged that the ongoing work of eradicating racism in Missouri will be difficult and will take time.
“We call upon the Catholic faithful and upon all men and women of good will to join this great effort by seeking a conversion of heart, removing any and all remaining vestiges of racial bitterness or hatred within each of us by working to ‘do justice, love goodness, and to walk humbly with God,’” they stated.
“May God help us in this important work.”