Group collecting soil in Chattanooga today for national memorial to lynching victims

Bryan Stevenson
photo Evan Milligan

When the Equal Justice Initiative opens the Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., in spring 2018, it will contain the soil from lynching sites across the South, including Chattanooga.

Most Southern lynching victims were killed on sites that remain unmarked and unrecognized. The jars of soil that are being collected will hold their stories.

"In this soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved," Director Bryan Stevenson says on the EQI website. "In the soil there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching. There are tears in the soil from all those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of segregation. But in the soil there is also the opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future."

The thinking that one life holds more value than another led to more than 4,000 black people being killed from 1877 to 1950 in an era of racial lynching in this country, according to Evan Milligan, law fellow at the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that challenges poverty and racial injustice and advocates for equal treatment in the criminal justice system.

That same thinking stands responsible for the disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color in this century, he says.

f you go

* What: Ed Johnson’s Community Remembrance Day.* When: 2 p.m. today.* Where: Hamilton County Jail, 605 Walnut St., then walk to Walnut Street Bridge.* Website:

Blacks in Tennessee make up 16.8 percent of the state population. They make up 44 percent of the population in prison.

Hispanics account for 4.9 percent of the state population and 2 percent of those in prison.

Some 1 in 30 adult black males in Tennessee are incarcerated, according to "The Color of Justice," a report published in 2016 on the website

"If we go back and look during the period of slavery and look at those states, during the time they had large populations of enslaved people. Start there, and you see a through-line from there. Those same states that had the largest number of enslaved people are the states that had the most frequent occurrence of targeted lynchings of African-Americans, says Milligan.

Those stats also indicate states with disproportionately high numbers of incarcerated people of color.

Stevenson and Milligan will speak at Ed Johnson's Community Remembrance Day at 2 p.m. today in downtown Chattanooga. The EQI representatives, members of the Ed Johnson Project Committee and community supporters will gather first at the Hamilton County Jail, 605 Walnut St. After remarks and the collection of soil, the group will march to the Walnut Street Bridge.

"It's interesting the path we're going to follow because we know that at least two gentlemen who were lynched were taken from the jail to the bridge, so it's sort of symbolic," says Eric Atkins, senior member of the Ed Johnson Project Committee, a Chattanooga group dedicated to telling the story of its namesake, whose lynching led to a landmark judicial precedent for federal oversight of local civil-rights issues in the American legal system.

Milligan notes that Johnson, who died on March 19, 1906, was one of four people lynched in the Chattanooga area. The others were Charles Williams on Sept. 7, 1885, Alfred Blount on Feb. 9, 1893, and Charles Brown on Feb. 25, 1897, he says.

During today's event, residents will collect Hamilton County soil and put it in jars in remembrance of the people lynched.

The jars will be transported to Montgomery for display in the national memorial to Peace and Justice, along with soil collections representing lynchings from across the United States.

"By participating in this event, we will send a message that the citizens of Hamilton County and Chattanooga want to recognize these tragic events of our past, take a stand against injustice and oppression, and seek to bring healing and reconciliation to our community," according to an Ed Johnson Project news release.

There can be no reconciliation and healing without remembering some of the instances of the past, says Atkins.

"There are still a lot of bones buried in our society," he says. "The best way for us to move forward is to atone and make amends for some of those things together."

Contact Yolanda Putman at or 423-757-6431.