Cook: Our purgatory of the last 100 years and the way out

Staff File Photo / Pictured is the headstone of Ed Johnson, who was lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge in 1906, on Tuesday, May 29, 2012, at Pleasant Gardens Cemetery in Chattanooga.

On Thursday, Sept. 16, the Ed Johnson Memorial Dedication begins, lasting four days, with more than a dozen events: a courthouse church service, discussions with Eddie Glaude Jr., Jon Meacham, artist Jerome Meadows, panels, lectures, walking tours and Sunday's memorial dedication.

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The dedication is the culmination of years of work.

It is historic; besides Montgomery, Alabama, is there another city in America that has done something like this?

But we must see it clearly.

The dedication of the Ed Johnson Memorial is not justice.

"If I burn down your house, then build a memorial of your house, that is not justice," one friend said.

It is not absolution.

It is not an ending.

While reconciling, it is not reconciliation.

It is, quite simply, the truth.

Yes, the truth. This is what happened. Here. On our bridge. Do not forget.

Because in the forgetting, there is death.

"We somehow believe we can outrun the ghosts of old, but they have no bodies and therefore, they cannot tire. The passive and active evils of racism still crush and divide souls, bodies and communities," said Donivan Brown, chair of the Ed Johnson Project.

Why did it take us so long, Chattanooga, to tell the truth?

Johnson was lynched on the second span of the Walnut Street bridge in 1906. For more than 100 years, we buried his memory, cloaked his murder in silence and turned the place of his death into a clean and easy tourist destination.

"After his death, he never stopped speaking to us," Brown said. "Only many of us stopped listening."

Imagine if we took 100 years to memorialize 9/11 victims. Or our city's Fallen Five. Imagine turning those places of violence into tourist destinations.

To such tragedies, we rightfully say: Never Forget.

Yet for 100 years, to Ed Johnson, we said: Never Remember. Always Forget.


What were we afraid of?

"We removed Johnson's body and thought that we could forget him but he is present. He remains among us as a haunting, expressing that even the dead yearn for justice. Maybe he realized that his killing and those like it have made our city sick, and he solemnly welcomes us to the path of truth and healing," Brown said.

How many meetings, public and private, did it take? How long has the Ed Johnson Project labored? My God, the consequence of their work.

Somewhere along the way, our minds turned.

Look, Chattanooga, at how good that is. The healing, the unburdening, the freedom.

"We actually told the truth about what happened to Ed Johnson and no leviathan came forth out of the Tennessee River to devour our city. We are still here. The best of ourselves is still here - disentangled from one more lie," Brown said.

This is crucial.

We often hold a belief that opening to the truth will destroy us, that we will have to shear off the good parts of ourselves in order to face the bad. We become trapped, frozen.

"It's placed us in a sort of moral purgatory. We live in this in-between state - psychologically, spiritually and physically - caught between the hell of willful ignorance and the hope of a heaven of a freedom," Brown said.

The Ed Johnson Memorial will become one of the most monumental places in this city.

It offers a way out of purgatory.

The memorial does not participate in the whitewashing of a lie, nor does it remain stuck in the violence of the past. Like any memorial - in South Africa, in Germany - it offers a present-day relationship with the past while simultaneously helping create a different future.

"The work of this memorial is a modern act of integration. It is fusing the reality that the Walnut Street bridge is both a place of delight and death. It is a place where folks from all over the city congregate. It is also a place where people like me refuse to cross. With this communal choice to remember, grieve and honor Ed Johnson, it can now be as bridges are designed to be - a place, a structure that connects two sides divided by a chasm," Brown said.

There on the southern end, Ed Johnson is alive, resurrected, speaking to us.

We can now listen.

"If Ed Johnson had the character to stand before a murderous mob with calm and courage, we can stand before him at the memorial with honor and lament," Brown said. "We may even find that after being with him, a renewed sense of steadfastness to fight against the evil of racism arises."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at