MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Elmore Bolling defied the odds against black men and built several successful businesses during the South's harsh era of Jim Crow segregation. He had more money than a lot of whites, which his descendants believe was all it took to get him lynched in 1947.
He was shot to death by a white neighbor, who was never prosecuted.
Bolling's name is now listed among thousands on a new memorial for victims of hate-inspired lynchings that terrorized generations of black Americans. Daughter Josephine Bolling McCall is anxious to see the monument, located about 20 miles from where her father was killed in rural Lowndes County. She plans to visit with her five living siblings.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opening Thursday, is a project of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy group in Montgomery. The organization says the combined museum and memorial will be the nation's first site to document racial inequality from slavery through Jim Crow to today.
"In the American South, we don't talk about slavery. We don't have monuments and memorials that confront the legacy of lynching. We haven't really confronted the difficulties of segregation. And because of that, I think we are still burdened by that history," said EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson.
The site includes a memorial to the victims of 4,400 "terror lynchings" of black people in 800 U.S. counties from 1877 through 1950. All but about 300 were in the South, and prosecutions were rare. Stevenson said they emphasized the lynching era because he believes it's an aspect of the nation's racial history that's least discussed.
The group says a common theme ran through the slayings: a desire to impose fear on minorities and maintain strict white control. Some lynchings drew huge crowds and were even photographed, yet authorities routinely ruled they were committed by "persons unknown."
McCall, 75, said her father's killing still hangs over her family. The memorial could help heal individual families and the nation by acknowledging the painful legacy of racial murders, she said. "It's important that the people to whom the injustices have been given are actually being recognized and at least some measure — some measure — of relief is sought through discussion."
E.M. Beck, who studied lynching for 30 years and has written books on the subject, said the memorial might actually understate the scope of lynching even though it lists thousands of victims.
"I think it's an underestimate because the number and amount of violence in early Reconstruction in the 1870s will probably never be known. There was just an incredible amount of violence taking place during that period of time," said Beck, sociology professor emeritus at the University of Georgia.
Not all lynchings were by hanging. The Equal Justice Initiative says it scoured newspapers, archives and court documents to find the stories of victims who were gunned down, drowned, beaten and burned alive. The monument is a memorial to all of them, with room for names to be added.