Great-grandson of lynching victim faces the past: "This is American history"

BOSTON -- A remarkable memorial opens later this month in Alabama, dedicated to victims of lynching. Oprah Winfrey was given an exclusive tour for "60 Minutes," and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors thousands of victims, including one man who was murdered in 1936.

Lent Shaw was accused of harassing a white woman and lynched when he was 42. The chilling, gruesome image of what happened to him has haunted Shaw's great-grandson, Evan Lewis, nearly his entire life.

"I knew that he was lynched in Georgia," said Lewis. "I knew that it was a pretty horrific incident and there wasn't a lot said about the history because folks were frankly afraid to speak to it."

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Lent Shaw was lynched in 1936

CBS News

That changed when the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Boston's Northeastern University Law School started digging into the case in 2016. Melissa Nobles from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Margaret Burnham from Northeastern run the project.

"We are now beginning to change the narrative such that the families who have had that violence visited upon them now can talk about it and it be understood," said Nobles.

What they discovered in Shaw's case was that the official story wasn't the whole story.

"He was perhaps targeted because he was accomplished, because he had accumulated some property and was hard-working," said Burnham.

It takes months to gather the facts -- legal documents, death certificates, photographs, interviewing survivors of victims and perpetrators. So far students have investigated more than 500 cases.

"We restore a measure of justice," said Burnham. "Restoring justice includes restoring information about what happened."

By the time Billie Holiday sang her lynching protest song "Strange Fruit" in 1939, racially motivated murders were at their peak. The Equal Justice Initiative reports more than 4,300 African Americans were lynched by 1950.

"This is not just my family history, this is American history," said Lewis. "Through the work of this project, it's become abundantly clear to me that he is more than this photo. Lent's life and his legacy is greater than his lynching."

It's a painful but crucial lesson: Before the whole story can ever be told, it first must be discovered. 

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.