Marti Tippens Murphy is the Executive Director of Facing History and Ourselves, Memphis. She delivered this speech at the dedication of the Lynching of Ell Persons Historical Marker, on May 21, 2017.
We’ve all heard that history shapes the present, that it isn’t even past. You could say history is our inheritance, that History Is Us.
We are the heirs to the culture of white supremacy that terrorized and lynched African Americans. The culture that made it acceptable for fathers and mothers to bring their own children to witness a barbaric and cruel murder—thereby desensitizing and indoctrinating the next generation and normalizing a culture of violence.
We are the heirs to the trauma of lynching, and the threat of lynching and the impact on families and communities. We must own the fact that fathers and mothers understood they were not safe, and they had to protect their children in any way they could, including teaching them that they were not safe. A lesson, that continues to be passed on to this day.
We are the heirs to the silence of the bystanders, some who were horrified and did nothing, and others who understood on some level that to be silent is to condone and protect the status quo.
And we are the heirs to the courage of the upstanders. Upstanders who had enough hope to fight. Upstanders such as the members of the NAACP who founded the Memphis chapter in response to Ell Persons’ lynching. Upstanders such as Ida B. Wells who spoke, and wrote, and fought against lynching for decades to shine the light of truth. And we are the descendants of the upstanders who remained anonymous, but who courageously resisted in whatever ways they could, to fight for justice. Without their courage and hope, we would not be here today.
By taking responsibility to remember Ell Persons and ensure his story is known, the Students Uniting Memphis of Overton High School’s Facing History class are upstanders.
Because we are all here today we can ask, what does justice for Ell Persons look like? We dedicate this marker today to remember Ell Persons, as a human being, not just a victim, but a son, a brother, a husband, a friend and a member of our community. Markers, memorials, and statues are a symbol of what story we choose to tell about the past and ourselves. They reflect our values and who we are.
By our willingness to face history and ourselves, we are creating a new narrative. We are saying that we are people willing to take action to heal from the past and to stop modern forms of racial injustice. This won’t be easy, but we can do so with hope because we have taken this step today.
History is Us.