John Williams. Gaines Hall. Buck Steward. Pete Zeigler. Jim Acoff. Henry Ivy. Willy Webb.
The names go on and on, 313 in all, printed in white against a dark backdrop, each a testament to a whole life stolen through the horrific American legacy of lynching.
The stunning presentation graced the front page of Thursday’s Montgomery Advertiser to mark the opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first memorial to lynching victims, alongside a new museum in Alabama’s capital that chronicles America’s history of racism.
The newspaper’s front-page design was weeks in the making, Advertiser executive editor Bro Krift said, and aims to honor people whose stories were snuffed out violently and often without any public recognition of what was lost.
“What we need this community to see is the names of the victims. I wanted it to go back to the names,” Krift told CNN. “There’s something that’s really important about a name on a printed page that will never go away.”
Also striking is a short message of contrition beneath the register of victims. In it, the editorial board of the nearly 200-year-old paper takes responsibility for being “careless in how it covered mob violence and the terror foisted upon African-Americans from Reconstruction through the 1950s.”
The staff editorial, which references a separate staff review of the paper’s coverage so many decades ago, begins simply, “We were wrong.”
“We dehumanized human beings,” the piece states. “Too often we characterized lynching victims as guilty before proven so and often assumed they committed the crime.”
“I wanted … to have us own our responsibility,” Krift said of the open message. “And if we could do it, hopefully others could, too.”
’It’s too important,’ one reader said
The page’s dual-pronged design grew out of a conversation with Advertiser reporter Melissa Brown and Krift’s recollection of a front page he helped oversee years ago as an editor at another paper, he said. Gannett Newspapers design team manager Take Uda, in the media company’s Phoenix design center, then got involved and brought it to life.
Not everyone in the Montgomery community has embraced it.
“There are some people who think the past is in the past, and we should move on,” Krift said.
But others have praised the approach, the editor said, including one reader whose home-delivered issue got ruined in Thursday’s morning storms.
“‘My paper’s wet. It’s too important. I want it, I need it,’” Krift recalled her telling him by phone of this particular edition. “So, I said, ‘OK, what’s your address?’”
Between the 1955 bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks, the Martin Luther King, Jr.-led march from Selma in 1965 and other events, Montgomery has a rich history as a center of the civil rights movement.
With the lynching memorial now part of its city and the veil lifted on The Advertiser’s own legacy, Krift said his staff of journalists will continue to cover their hometown, now with a deeper understanding of what it means to seek the truth.
“We have to have conversations and be conscious about the words we use to describe people, such as people accused of crimes, even victims of crimes, public officials,” he told CNN. “Words in our business can hurt for a very, very long time, and I think we’ve learned that from this experience.”
Update: This story has been updated to clarify Krift’s role at another newspaper.