My Turn, Kendal Mobley: Marker will acknowledge Rowan lynchings

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 25, 2021

On Aug. 6, Actions in Faith and Justice (AFJ), a local grassroots organization, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery, Alabama, will dedicate a historical marker near the intersection of North Church and West Liberty streets in Salisbury, next to the Oak Grove-Freedmen’s Cemetery.

As part of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, the marker acknowledges the lynchings that took place in Rowan County between 1902 and 1930. It will be the first EJI marker erected in North Carolina. The theme of the dedication is “Truth Be Told.” Members of the public are invited to the service of dedication at Soldier’s Memorial AME Zion Church, August 6, at 7:00 PM.

Because I believe that racial justice is not just a “Black issue,” I have worked on this project with AFJ for several years. I am convinced that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The poisonous ideology of white supremacy, built into the foundations of our nation long ago, constitutes a fundamental threat to justice. I didn’t create it, but, as one of white supremacy’s intended beneficiaries, I cannot pretend to be neutral. I must take responsibility and do what I can to expose and eradicate it. Some might call that “wokeness” or “white guilt.” I call it simple justice.

The historical marker is important because it calls attention to the way white supremacy is enforced with violence and terror. From the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until 1950, there were approximately 4,400 racial terror lynchings in the United States, primarily in the South. At least six of them occurred in Rowan County. The victims were Harrison and James Gillespie, ages 13 and 11, in 1902; Jack Dillingham, Nease Gillespie, and his sixteen-year-old son John Gillespie, in 1906; and 59-year-old Laura Wood, a wife and mother, in 1930.

Lynchings were horrific rituals of terror and white social control, meant to instill fear in African American communities and paralyze resistance to Jim Crow. Some were gory public spectacles, like the 1906 murders of Dillingham and the Gillespies, witnessed by 2,000 people during or after the fact, according to reports, and celebrated on picture post cards.

Lynching is just one manifestation of racial terror in our nation’s history. There are many, many others. The violence is never an end in itself; it enforces the more insidious forms of racial oppression embedded in our institutions.

Our nation has never fully reckoned with the pervasiveness of ideological whiteness; consequently, contemporary discussions of law enforcement, mass incarceration, criminal justice, educational policy, and any number of other questions are unavoidably fraught. But when we are willing to put in the effort, there are workable, effective strategies for systemic change.

In North Carolina, one such strategy is the School Justice Partnership Project, coordinated by the North Carolina Judicial Branch’s Administrative Office of the Courts. Recognizing that African American students are disproportionately subjected to in-school arrests, out-of-school suspensions, and expulsions, AFJ is working with stakeholders in Rowan County to establish a School Justice Partnership (SJP) between the court system, law enforcement, and Rowan-Salisbury Schools. While the SJP is only one small part of a much larger racial justice landscape, it represents the organized, systemic approach needed to dismantle generations of injustice and achieve greater equity for our whole community.

To all citizens of good will in Rowan County, I extend this invitation. Support organizations like AFJ and EJI that seek to expose the power of white supremacy in our past and honestly assess its impact on our institutions today, and give your time and resources to organized responses that will lead to greater justice in the future.    

Kendal Mobley teaches religious studies at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.