Maryland has created a truth commission on lynchings – can it deliver?

Between 1850 and 1950, thousands of African American men, women and children were victims of lynchings: public torture and killings carried out by white mobs.

Lynchings were used to terrorize and control black people, notably in the South following the end of slavery.

Yet despite the prevalence and seriousness of the practice, there has been an “astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching,” reports the Equal Justice Initiative, the leading organization conducting research on lynchings.

Until now.

In April 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – the first lynching memorial in the U.S. – was opened in Montgomery, Alabama. In December of the same year, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that defined lynching as a federal crime.

More recently, in April 2019, the state of Maryland established a truth commission to investigate the lynchings of at least 40 African Americans between 1854 and 1933.

The legislation that authorized the truth commission, Maryland HB 307, was sponsored by Maryland House Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk.

Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee in February 2019, Peña-Melnyk said that the commission would be an opportunity “to send the message that the lives of the 40-something people really mattered.” Written with the help of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project and endorsed by the Equal Justice Initiative, the bill passed with strong bipartisan support just two months later.

The commission has the potential to educate the public about dozens of lynchings – some of which occurred with the knowledge or direct involvement of local, county and state government entities. The commission can also provide the opportunity for reconciliation between the families of those who were responsible and the families of those who were killed.

Can it live up to its promise?

Death certificate for George Armwood, 22- or 23-year-old lynched in Maryland by a mob. Maryland State Archives/Flickr

Truth commissions around the world

I study human rights, with a particular interest in institutions that hold individuals, organizations and governments accountable for human rights abuses. My current research focuses on truth commissions and how they can be designed to be effective.

A truth commission is a temporary body that investigates different forms and systems of violence that happened in the past. Examples include the commissions that investigated apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Timor-Leste and the dictatorship in Chile.

Generally, governments establish commissions to examine documents and collect witness testimony. A key goal of commissions is preparing a report that details the facts and traces the legacies of violence and abuse. A second, related goal is reconciliation. In Maryland’s case, this would mean working toward respect, understanding and trust of those of other races and their experiences.

Based on my research and analyses of truth commissions in Chile, South Africa and Timor-Leste, I believe that the commission in Maryland has the potential to succeed.

But it faces some big obstacles.

Truth commissions in the US

The commission in Maryland will not be the first in the U.S.

In the 1980s, a national commission studied the government’s relocation and internment in camps of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The commission’s work led to both apologies and reparations for victims.

In addition, there have been commissions at the local level – for example, the 2004 commission in North Carolina that examined the killing of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in Greensboro in 1979. There have also been commissions at the state level – for example the 2013 commission in Maine that investigated the separation of indigenous Wabanaki children from their communities since 1960.

However, the commission in Maryland will be the first to research lynchings, which investigative journalist Ida B. Wells in 1909 called the U.S.‘s “national crime.”