By Dr. Joanne M. Martin

It took a camera phone and shocked eye-witnesses to the in-plain-sight death of George Floyd to bring mass attention to the killing of countless numbers of mainly Black men in America by the police.

It took ten minutes and nine seconds on her iphone for 17-year-old Darnella Frazier to seer into the minds and conscience of many White Americans that it was time to discard their “You people need to get over it” mentality and to perhaps find out what “it” is.  

It took the public lynching of another unarmed Black man in such a horrific way for White people to decide that they were ready to listen and learn and perhaps act.

Yet lynching in America has almost always been a public spectacle. It has historically involved Black male victims murdered in heinous and grotesque ways. Picnic baskets packed for the lynchings. White families coming to the spectacle for a day of festivity (Make no mistake, Black women were also lynched, lest we forget Mary Turner in the early 1800’s; or Breonna Taylor today).

And most relevantly, according to the website, “State Sanctioned, the majority of these incidents…perhaps as many as 75 percent — were perpetrated with the direct or indirect assistance of law enforcement personnel!” This claim is bolstered by evidence from newspapers, trial transcripts, etc.

In 1995, exactly 25 years ago, my late husband Dr. Elmer P. Martin, the  Museums’ visionary co-founder, proclaimed that a permanent exhibit on lynching was needed. I had grown accustomed to such proclamations. Around 1991, he proclaimed that an exhibit on the slave ship experience was needed, one calling for museum visitors to physically descend into the cramped quarters of a re-created slave ship hold and witness the horror, alongside a story of triumph and survival of a people fighting against a slavery system designed to dehumanize them.  

Into the Hold: The Slave Ship Experience, 1993, was in Dr. Elmer Martin’s opinion a story that The Great Blacks In Wax Museum had to tell because few museums would have the courage to do so.

Clear to me in his pronouncement about the need to tackle the subject of lynching was his belief that few if any museums would do justice to such a complex topic. He argued that such exhibits, though unlikely, would be temporary or “special,” on display for a short period and allowing the sponsor to pat themselves on the back for having chosen to curate an exhibit on lynching and then to move on. He was convinced that such installations would be filled with so much symbolism and abstractions and thus would achieve the purpose of not showing lynching as an act of terrorism and unspeakable violence. Still other museums would be on the side of a “balanced, good people on both sides perspective” and thus lynching as “frontier justice,” sought by good, high moral citizens and vigilantes, there to serve and protect the townspeople, aided and abetted by upright men in hoods and sheets.

Dr. Elmer Martin would have none of this!  From the beginning he operated on the belief that our Museum had to be guided by a central mission of helping our children seek truth. To him that meant that “ancestor worship” was a good and necessary thing, a recognition of our ancestors’ sacrifice, gratitude for their wisdom, an acknowledgement of their hope for those who followed after them.

This to “Dr. E,” meant never daring to seek White America’s permission to tell our story. “No whitewashing of history,” he was known to say. No being complicit in the United States of America’s effort to silence all discussions of race and racism. No denial of a past characterized by slavery or modern day lynchings, some of which sometimes involve a rope and tree, but more often a policeman with a gun or a court system set up to exonerate the gun-wielding police officer or the upright White citizen fearing for his life. Then too, today’s lynchings bear other names, like poverty, or inequality or health disparity.

The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum will always strive to help our youth know and embrace the valuable lessons and experiences that made for the strength and endurance of our ancestors. And in honoring the ancestors, they will know and accept their obligation and call to take up the mantle as freedom fighters, justice purveyors, civil rights champions, anti-racism warriors and embracers of equity for all of humankind.

Dr. Elmer Martin would ask that we do no less.

Dr. Joanne M. Martin is co-founder of The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in Baltimore, Md.

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