Social Justice

Historical Justice: The Case for Truth-Telling in Tennessee Communities

Over the past 100 years, researchers have uncovered over 100 unsolved Civil Rights cases have occurred across the state of Tennessee, many if not most racially motivated (*SJC 2017 Civil Rights Cold Case Act Report, January 2018). The cases include instigation of race riots, vandalism and bombing of state owned or private property, and also lynchings. These cases, often highly public affairs, have been deemed unpalatable by many and so have been systematically erased from the official narratives of our collective history. Yet these histories have lasting impacts on our communities and are important for understanding modern day racial wounds.

FIGURE 1: Interactive map of Summary Database 1916-2016: The figure is a fixed screenshot of the interactive database being prepared for the Tennessee State Library and Archive Digital Collection. The online format allows for primary data on each case to be revealed by clicking on individual pinheads. LEGEND: RED pinhead = lynching or murder, PURPLE pinhead = racially charged institutional case (church arsons, residential or school bombings or vandalism), GREY pinhead = multiple incidents mapped at this location.

A Redemptive Process

Some argue that resurrecting the details of these cases stirs up resentments. We believe that by acknowledging them and the lasting impact that they have on our communities, can we heal deep wounds that continue to tear Tennessee communities apart. To this day, significant racial strife in Tennessee communities such as Springfield, Nashville, Memphis and Hendersonville, contribute to a loss of trust between communities of color, white enclaves and law enforcement. We have yet to find a productive solution for these issues and rely heavily on incarceration for a sense of security, resulting in incarceration rates that vastly exceed other countries. A redemptive process is imperative to bring a sense of trust and security back to our communities.


Recently, historical justice groups in Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee have conducted remembrance events at the sites of bombings, lynchings and court cases in the region. These events are undergirded by legislation passed in 2017 known as the Civil Rights Cold Case Act or HB2624/SB2631, signed by Governor Haslam in May of 2018. Examples of these multiracial reconciliation events include: the annual “Walk in Love” on Jefferson St. commemorating the bombing of Civil Rights Attorney Z. Alexander Looby’s Home and the peaceful protest in response that brought about the desegregation of Nashville’s downtown businesses; the “Reclaiming Hope Through Remembering” service for three named victims of lynching in Davidson County hosted jointly by the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee and the United Church of Christ Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University; extensive research and memorials to over a dozen victims of lynching in Shelby and Hayward counties in West Tennessee through the Memphis Lynching Sites Project; and the unveiling of the mural “Justice Served”, artist Bernice Davidson, at the Lawrence County Courthouse in remembrance of the court case defending victims of the infamous “Mink Slide Race Riot” in Columbia, Tennessee.

Figure 2: “Reclaiming Hope Through Remembering” memorial service at Fisk Chapel, June 7th, 2018. Participants included Episcopal, Methodist, and A.M.E. clergy and scholars from the United Church of Christ’s Christian Scholars Conference, as well as local community members. The sermon was provided by Rev. Ntombi Tutu. A permanent historical marker to the victims of lynching was laid at St. Anselm’s Episcopal Church in Nashville.

Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Points the Way

These efforts continue and promise to intensify in Tennessee, due to cultural interest at both the local and the national level. In April 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) opened its National Memorial to Peace and Justice, recognizing more than 4,000 named victims of lynching and racial terror in the United States. The EJI has drawn a straight line from the legacy of slavery through racial terror lynching to our current system of mass incarceration and systematic social exclusion of an entire race of people.

The stories of individual victims, communities and broader society also lay bare a continuing story of the history of a people whose attitudes to this day are shaped by this legacy. Conversations about racial equality and criminal justice reform begin by sharing a common language and a common history. By actively acknowledging our common history, culpability, fallibility and potential for redemption, conversations leading to actions toward a productive common future will become possible, by grace.

Published on June 9, 2018 12:20pm

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Natasha Deane

Born in 1961 in St. Louis, Missouri, Natasha studied Biology and Medicine at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. John and Natasha met in 1987 while living in St. Louis where John was working with Natasha’s father, Neville Grant, M.D., a prominent physician leader at Washington University Medical Center. The two were married in the spring of 1988.

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