69.3 August 2022

Countering Dominant Narratives in Public Memory

doi: https://doi.org/10.55177/tc985417

By April L. O’Brien and Josephine Walwema


Purpose: State historical commissions tend to avoid erecting historical marker texts (HMTs), memorials, or monuments that document violence towards Black and brown individuals. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) uses a series of tactics to circumvent local historical commissions to memorialize victims of lynching.

Methods: In this study, we use the EJI’s Community Remembrance Project (CRP), an informational handbook for community activists, as our data set. We apply the 4Rs (Walton, Moore, & Jones, 2019) and tactical technical communication in our analysis of the Community Remembrance Project and argue that the document functions as a coalitional, truth-telling tactic to redress inequalities in public memory.

Results: We found that the EJI’s CRP efforts with the Historical Marker Project clearly demonstrate how coalitions can tactically intervene in racist systems—like historical commissions that reject truth-telling efforts—by creating a different path for historical markers to be erected in communities.

Conclusion: We argue that public memory texts often reinforce racism by avoiding topics like racial terror lynching and that these omissions have cultural and material consequences on communities. We contend that technical communicators can intervene in public memory systems and promote truth-telling through coalitional approaches to community activism.

Keywords: social justice, public memory, historical marker texts, informational texts, history

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

Based on this study, practitioners can consider:

  • The ways that texts and institutions can marginalize groups of individuals.
  • How technical communicators are active producers of information.
  • Possibilities and opportunities for using tactical technical communication and community coalitions to create equitable documents.


On April 26, 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a human rights organization, opened its doors to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (NMPJ) in Montgomery, Alabama, a memorial built to honor the more than 4,400 Black people who were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950. Modeled after the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, the memorial consciously documents a violent aspect of U.S. history that has been either minimized or erased from public memory. Prior to the erection of the NMPJ, there were no significant sites to memorialize this inhumanity. Bryan Stevenson, executive director of EJI, explained that visitors must “see the names of all these people [who have] never been named in public” (as cited in Robertson). These names of individuals who were lynched are engraved on Corten steel columns, which are suspended from the ceiling. The columns, as Robertson (2018) observes, “meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given . . . by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings” (para 4). Each column includes the dates along with the sites (counties and states) and names (if known) of the lynched (see Figure 1).

Outside, on what is known as the “memory bank” lie duplicates of monuments. EJI incorporated the duplicate monuments with the intention that counties would “. . . engage in this process of acknowledgment and reconciliation by claiming their monument and placing it as a marker in their own community” (MASS Design Group, n.d.). In collaboration with activists, EJI provides funding and instructions to interested parties to build historical marker texts (HMT) without requiring the approval of state or county historical agencies. In Texas, for example, county-level historical commissioners are elected to office. Montgomery County, a highly populated, Republican-dominated County located just north of Houston, Texas elects a County Judge, who also becomes the leader of the county’s historical commission. The other commissioners are not elected because of their historical knowledge but because of their political power (O’Brien, 2021, p. 6). In this article, we examine the HMT work of the EJI as tactical technical communication. We argue that EJI’s actions of memorializing lynched victims is a tactic that circumvents local historical commissions, which predominantly tend to avoid erecting HMTs, memorials, or monuments that document violence towards Black and brown individuals.

From the outset, we note that this article is not just about HMTs. It is also about the trauma and violence visited upon Black Americans during a period of intense racial terror. Moreover, given that various forms of racial terror are still inflicted on Black Americans in very public ways as seen in the killings of George Floyd, Fernando Castille, and too many others, this work has the capacity to be triggering to readers. Indeed, Ore (2019) who has examined “lynching as a racialized practice of civic engagement” rooted in anti-Blackness (p. 11), observes that lynching in the 21st century has transformed to “maintain the racial status quo through its denial of due process of law” (p. 19). We further acknowledge that while truth telling has been embraced in the aftermath of atrocities as vital for countering silence and even creating discursive space for addressing past injustices, the risk associated with unearthing atrocities and thus “compelling” individuals to relive those atrocities still abides (see Brounéus, 2010 study of Rwanda; Morris, 2011 on South Africa’s TRC). Both studies, which focus on trials, found that individuals who were called as witnesses suffered a high level of PTSD from having to recall those details. Thus, we defer to Bryan Stevenson (2018), who wishes that “truth and justice work become local and that every community that has witnessed the horror of lynching reckons with that history through memorialization,” (para 2).


HMTs, also known as roadside markers or subject markers, are standalone plaques or stone markers inscribed with text. They are typically installed by state historical commissions at sites that are considered to be historically significant. As informational texts, their primary purpose is to legitimize a (historical) reality to readers quickly and efficiently. And yet, for the most part, HMTs remain an underrecognized area of study in TPC, perhaps owing to their relatively modest size and aesthetic nature—especially compared to more impressive monuments and memorials (Alderman, 2012, p. 358). This article seeks to amplify HMTs as brief, public-facing informational reports and to legitimize the study of public memory documents within TPC. HMTs are, however, bound up within this nation’s racist history.

Scholars and activists from a variety of fields, including cultural geography, history, and rhetoric have explored how race and racism impact the creation and circulation of historical tours, monuments, memorials, and HMTs (Alderman, 2012; Bright et al., 2020; Dickinson et al., 2010; Loewen, 1999; O’Brien & Sanchez, 2021; O’Brien, 2018, 2021; Poirot & Watson, 2015; Sanchez & Moore, 2015; Tell, 2019). HMTs are properties of state and local governments, which go to great lengths to protect them by law (Alderman, 2012; Price, 2002). Removing or revisiting such markers can be met with formidable resistance (examples include attempts to revisit the 2015 Greensboro Massacre and The Georgia Historical Society’s 2015 correction of the Lost Cause narrative). Most attempts at dialogue have failed to change minds. In addition, the lack of diversity on many local and state-level historical commissions, as well as exclusionary HMT application instructions, shape which topics are approved. Consequently, HMTs often do not communicate the impact and significance of Black and other non-white individuals or deliver an authentic narrative of racialized injustices. Indeed, the entire infrastructure for installing HMTs is an unethical minefield that ought to concern TPC scholars. For example, in Loewen’s (1999) extensive examination of public memory sites in the U.S., he lists countless HMTs, memorials, and markers that memorialize white supremacists and many HMTs that are simply inaccurate or an exaggeration of historical data (p. 253). Most egregiously, historical markers elide references to slavery, the struggle(s) for emancipation, and the brutal response to the people agitating for this very American ideal of freedom and liberty (Bright et al., 2020; O’Brien, 2021).

To redress this imbalance, EJI has embarked on a series of tactics to counter the dominant narrative advanced and perpetuated by these markers by joining with communities to mark sites of racial terror and lynchings. EJI executive director Stevenson in the EJI Catalog (2021) explains that “. . . historical markers change our national landscape; they publicly claim the truth in necessary ways” (p. 93). Since monuments and historical markers are perceived as established institutionalized artifacts that embody settled values, we demonstrate in this article how reified institutional structures strategically operate to maintain the status quo. We contrast that strategy by examining how the work of the EJI counters that narrative, disrupts the legitimacy of those markers, and recovers the erased stories of those whose violent deaths were not memorialized.

To do this work, we (1) establish HMTs as TPC public-facing informational reports that communicate historical knowledge (Haas, 2012; Markel & Selber, 2018, p. 449; O’Brien, 2021); (2) examine how county and state historical commissions actively impede attempts to erect HMTs that communicate the impact and significance of Black individuals or provide an accurate account of racialized injustices; (3) adopt the 4Rs heuristic (Walton, Moore, & Jones; 2019) as a coalitional, truth-telling tactic to redress inequalities in public memory; and (4) bring together EJI’s uses of the 4Rs and tactical technical communication to memorialize the lives of the victims of terror lynching. This work uses as its data, the EJI’s Community Remembrance Project and its work of memorializing, which is itself broken down into Soil Collection, Racial Justice Essay, and the Historical Marker Placement. As Mckoy et al. (2022) argue, “the need to trouble notions of objectivity and neutrality in technical communication is urgent,” and we contend that by examining EJI’s coalitional tactics, we trouble those notions of objectivity and amplify the work of anti-racist technical communication (p. 2).


As one of the most basic yet foundational genres of TPC, informational reports present knowledge in an organized manner. Such texts gather and present “clear, accurate, specific information to an audience,” and in many cases, they synthesize large quantities of data or findings (Markel & Selber, 2018, p. 449). While conventional informational reports are print documents characterized by a specific format and distinct conventions, O’Brien (2021) establishes HMTs as fitting the definition of informational reports that are increasingly ubiquitous, multimodal and/or multimedia in genre. These newer iterations of informational reports are published online, and as a result, appear different from their traditional print-based counterparts. They often include a greater number of images, as well as videos, infographics, and other interactive components (Phillips, 2018).

As informational reports are published online, practitioners have moved to shorten and or abbreviate the more lengthy ones using a variety of media, including slide decks, short videos, or a single 8” x 11” document. Other types of informational reports, for example, include the Negro Motorist Greenbook, which exemplifies the ingenuity of Black technical communicators during times of injustice. While appearing in different platforms, the similarity between these examples demonstrates how technology (both digital and print-based) affords technical communicators the ability to distill information into more concise and readable forms (O’Brien, 2021, p. 3). Taking into consideration a more expansive definition of informational reports, we echo O’Brien’s definition of HMTs as “informational reports that describe historical events, individuals, or sites to an audience—those individuals who encounter a roadside marker” (p. 3). In a society dominated by institutional power, HMTs are authoritative texts that operate strategically to disseminate a dominant narrative about racialized violence and terror lynching in the respective societies they appear.

In addition, HMTs are characterized as a technology that has enhanced the genre of the informational report (Haas, 2012). HMTs, as “constructed and useful thing[s] [with] practical application[s]” (Slack and Wise, 2005, p. 95), and as informational reports fit within Haas’s (2012) argument that we do not “conflate new media with definitions of technology” (p. 288). For while it is unlikely that the public would study a 20-page informational report about, say, the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington[1] in Waco, Texas, it is probable that a greater number of people would view and read an HMT in front of city hall. Thus, HMTs represent a technology that increases visibility, readability, and accessibility to a widely conceived, though unspecifiable, and varied public that may not necessarily be seeking out this content.


In the U.S., each state (and in some cases, each county) has established historical commissions whose role is to educate the public about historical events, places, or individuals. In Texas, for example, the Texas Historical Commission (THC)—with commissioners appointed by the governor—sets state-wide standards for the HMT application process and which HMT applications are approved. Likewise, county-level historical commissions often make the same decisions at the micro-level (J. Littlejohn, personal communication, January 19, 2021). While the THC makes the final decisions about HMTs, it is often county-level commissioners who leverage power to reject HMT ideas even before they are officially submitted to the commission. Take, for example, J. Littlejohn, who recently formed the Montgomery County Remembrance Project (MCRP) with the support of EJI. J. Littlejohn formed the MCRP because the Montgomery County Historical Commission (MCHC) refused to consider erecting an HMT that would memorialize Joe Winters, a Black man who was lynched in 1922. According to J. Littlejohn, the commissioner explained that neither he, nor the MCHC or THC, would be interested in pursuing HMTs that would deal with topics like lynching. This example is not aberrant, though. Across the U.S., historical commissions actively thwart an honest and accurate public memory of the violence perpetrated toward Black Americans (Alderman, 2012; Bright et al., 2020; Loewen, 1999). Loewen (1999) explains that HMTs are composed by historical agencies who wield epideictic rhetoric—in short, they want to “inspire rather than inform” (p. 29). Whether due to bias, fear of consequences, or the desire to maintain white supremacy, these commissions “inspire” through light-hearted or meaningless HMTs and avoid erecting HMTs that confront negative aspects of U.S. history.

O’Brien’s (2021) study of Texas’s historical agencies demonstrated that in spite of a prolific public memory system, the overwhelming majority of HMTs did not acknowledge racialized injustices, violence, and disenfranchisement of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Chinese American individuals. For example, the THC’s seemingly progressive decision to introduce the Undertold Marker Program (UMP) in 2006 outwardly appears to broaden the scope of public memory in Texas to address “historical gaps, [to] promote diversity of topics, and [to] proactively document significant underrepresented subjects or untold stories” (THC, 2022). While the newer HMTs depict the challenges that many people encountered because of their race, ethnicity, and country of origin, while highlighting their accomplishments, upon further inspection, the markers fail to provide an accurate account of slavery, Reconstruction violence, and other racialized injustices in Texas history.

We would be remiss not to recognize that newer HMTs demonstrate a movement towards “just representation” (Bright et al., 2020), which means that the UMP has begun the work to communicate the impact and significance of individuals previously not memorialized. However, many of the UMP markers hint at racialized violence and injustice, but they do little to apologize or offer to redress these injustices. Contrast this with, as Loewen (1999) points out, Germany’s efforts to memorialize the Holocaust. He lists several sites in the Schöneberg quarter of Berlin: signs that list regulations that limited the movement and rights of Jews, benches with text that say, “No Jews,” areas of parks where signs communicate that Jews were forbidden, and other more sweeping monuments and markers throughout the country (p. 417). Loewen writes, “The United States needs similar reminders to show how African Americans . . . Native, Mexican, and Asian Americans were restricted under segregation” (p. 417). We concur. We add that the U.S. needs reminders and apologies of racialized violence enacted via HMTs, including listing the names of individuals who were lynched. To truly rectify past sins, public memory must transparently confront what specific actions were wrong, why they were harmful, and whom they impacted. This is in keeping with the 4Rs heuristic of which we say more below.

In light of institutional intransigence in confronting this history, EJI has resorted to tactics as a means to both confront this history and redress these injustices. For example, EJI argues daily in their social media posts like Instagram: “to overcome racial inequality, we must confront our history.” These posts are intended to, and, indeed, reach multiple audiences in different contexts—audiences with various experiences and forms of expertise. This is a tactical form of outreach in itself as it keeps the issue of past injustices current and present. Below, we conceptualize tactics and then show EJI’s tactical approach to redress injustice.


Technical communication has historically been associated with work and the workplace where it is considered a technology, a tool, or a product that enables the workplace (government, organizational, or other institutional entities) to meet its goals (Dobrin, 1983; Kimball, 2006). Certainly, studying codified workplaces and the documentation emerging from them is easier than assorted, often extra-institutional sites. And yet, alongside ensconced institutional practices of TPC are a proliferation of “users as producers” of technical communication as first noted by Johnson (1998). Building on Johnson’s work, Kimball (2006) took a compelling angle on tactical and extra-institutional technical communication to demonstrate “the growing importance of technical communication in everyday life as a matter of production as well as consumption” (p. 84). Kimball’s work has led to a surge of scholarship amplifying the visibility of tactics and theorizing their forms in everyday life culminating in a Special Issue of Technical and Communication Quarterly and an array of articles (see Colton, Holmes, & Walwema, 2017; Sarat-St. Peter, 2017; Kimball, 2017; Edenfield, Holmes & Colton, 2019).

Drawing on the work of de Certeau (1984) to study technical communication in everyday life, the field conceived of tactics as a set of practices of resistance that go up against institutional power and that take place in extra-institutional spaces. To explicate tactics, de Certeau differentiated them from strategies, which he broadly construed as rules, systems, and even structures established to regulate work and life, are hegemonic and propagate power (1984, p. 17). He classified strategies as regulatory and inflexible disciplinary mechanisms, “the calculus of force-relationships” (p. 17) and place-based in locales that are seats of power. From this position, strategies uphold the interests of one group (the institution) while imposing on the other. To counter this power imbalance, tactics emerge, often from within these very institutional structures, by appropriating the levers that legitimize institutional power and by sometimes eroding those power mechanisms. Tactics stand in contrast to strategies as individualized appropriations of strategies and implicit forms of resistance. To be clear, tactics do not exist to topple strategies; rather, they emerge in response to and as a foil against entrenched often oppressive practices. In the rawest of forms, tactics are a means to contest the social order stratified by strategies, to create agency for those without the strategic power.

Still, an examination of tactical technical communication has unearthed its discursive elements (Knievel, 2019) and the very authentic technical communication that takes place in extra-institutional sites as practical technological know-how (Cockburn, 1988, p 18). Seeing tactics as vehicles for seeking redress, given its targeted actions to create resistance, attract and sustain action to a cause, and demand redress is now common. That work has led to the possibility of appropriating tactical technical communication to “further the field’s interest in social justice (Edenfield, Holmes & Colton, 2019, p. 177), and for purposes of this study, perhaps attain a sense of restorative justice. For, as a surge of recent scholarship has shown, TPC should go beyond naming injustices (Jones, 2016).

This article builds on a totality of this scholarship to contend with the role, perhaps inadvertently, of tactical technical communication, in restorative justice. Specifically, it examines the agency of Black Americans in reclaiming their own history through the tactical nature of the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) approach to memorializing victims of racial terror lynching. To understand these tactics, we sought to answer this question: What textual, visual, and design tactics does the EJI deploy/employ to counter the dominant approach to installing historical marker texts? How does this work memorialize the lives of the victims of racial terror lynching and thereby restore the humanity that was denied them in death?

To answer these guiding questions, we looked at a number of resources from the Equal Justice Initiative and settled on analyzing its catalog titled, Community Remembrance Project. While the EJI has several resources in the form of videos, reports, teachers’ guides, lesson plans, memorial, and museum, we found that the Community Remembrance Project catalog laid bare the tactics of EJI. The catalog describes EJI’s various methods and methodologies, but it ultimately focuses on the Community Remembrance Project (CRP), which consists of Soil Collection, Racial Justice Essay Contest, and Historical Marker Program. For this study, we used Walton et al.’s (2019) 4Rs heuristic to perform a rhetorical analysis of the catalog for the purpose of illustrating how EJI is enacting this theory in tangible ways. Based on our establishment that HMTs are information technical documents, we extend that definition to the EJI’s Community Remembrance Project Catalog for creating HMTs memorializing the lives of the victims of terror lynching to counter the dominant narrative advanced by state, county, and local commissions.


The EJI Catalog, Community Remembrance Project: A New Commitment to Truth and Justice, is a 164-page booklet designed for visual appeal. The cover portrays a family of three, two adults and one child, who are partially submerged in water alongside the hull of a ship. Inscribed within this image are the words, “May we never forget all those who suffered and died because they asserted their basic human right to be free.” That cover in Figure 2 frames the contents of the Community Remembrance Project.

Inside, the catalog opens to introductory pages, one of which repeats the information on the cover page and the other a table of contents. The subsequent pages then unfold in descriptive text, images of historical markers, photographs of people engaging in various community actions, and pictures of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

EJI communicates the mission of CRPs towards the beginning of the catalog through a repetition of the following clause: “EJI invites communities to engage . . .” (p. 6). This clause introduces the CRP as a coalition of community members who partner with EJI to accomplish a set of goals. A coalition, as defined by Walton et al. (2019), is firstly an intersectional endeavor that centers the lived experiences and perspectives of multiply marginalized individuals (p. 134). As an intersectional group of people, coalitions do not use a single lens to interpret inequity (e.g., sexism, racism, etc.); rather, coalitions handle oppression through a variety of perspectives. Walton et al. also define coalitions as groups who work collectively “to understand oppression and spur change” (p. 134). As a result of working collectively, members do not always get to define for themselves the direction of the group but instead attend to coalitions that are already in place. These are the characteristics of a coalition: intersectionality and collectivity. In examining the catalog, we contend that EJI’s community work is indeed a coalition that promotes intersectionality and collectivity in several ways.

A CRP begins by considering what conversations have been ongoing in the community and/or which groups are already working to advance truth-telling efforts (EJI, 2021, p. 31). EJI refers to these actions as “intentional community assessment,” and that they serve to evaluate the dynamics within a community before introducing a CRP. This perspective is in contrast to one that would seek to colonize community work that is already in place. Likewise, EJI highlights the impacts of a CRP on local communities, which includes African Americans who are relatives or descendants of individuals who were lynched. Thus, if possible, a CRP must incorporate their stories into the research process. Often, these relatives serve on the CRP and are key figures in community events, such as the unveiling of a historical marker that memorializes a lynching or a commemorative march (p. 92). In addition, the members of a CRP should represent a wide range of people, including school board members, students, town board members, university faculty, church members, and many others. With such a diverse group of people, a CRP is well-positioned to address local concerns, like criminal justice and policing, education, housing, and other social justice-related issues (p. 35). In most cases, also, CRPs are chaired or co-chaired by Black community members to center the viewpoints and experiences of people who have directly borne the trauma that resulted from racial terror (pp. 12, 32).

In addition to describing the characteristics of a CRP, EJI also clarifies the purpose of the catalog early in the document: “EJI invites communities to engage in restorative truth-telling efforts to work towards repairing the harms caused as a result of an era of enslavement, an era of racial terror lynching and violence, an era of Jim Crow segregation, and an ongoing era of mass incarceration in our nation. EJI believes that these efforts are critical to advance a new era of truth and justice” (p. 6). EJI positions anti-Black bias and discrimination as one continuous ideology that began with enslavement, continued through Reconstruction with racial terror lynching and violence, through Jim Crow segregation, and carries on to the present day with the ongoing reality of police brutality and mass incarceration. Thus, the purpose of the catalog is to educate communities about how they can be a part of restorative truth-telling efforts that directly respond to these events, as well as how in most communities, these events have been intentionally erased or disregarded to maintain white supremacy. Truth-telling efforts, which demonstrate a culture’s commitment to diversity and social justice are also issues that impact technical communicators. As Jones (2016) argues, “A critical approach to diversity and social justice helps to legitimize TPC by providing scholars a way to acknowledge the impact of communication as a way of mediating the human experience” (p. 343).

While we focus specifically on the CRP’s three-pronged campaign, in addition to these three efforts, the catalog depicts other ways that communities can “engage in restorative truth-telling efforts” via book panels and discussions (pp. 36–37), film and documentary screenings (pp. 40–43), social media awareness campaigns (pp. 44–45), art exhibits that illustrate past and present injustices (pp. 48–51), historical showcases (pp. 52–55), and many other alternatives. Essentially, the catalog aims to answer the question: How can a community advance truth-telling efforts and work towards repairing the harm against Black Americans? The answer addresses our research question with respect to the tactics EJI deploys/employs and exemplifies how this work memorializes the lives of the victims of racial terror lynching.

Because we are interested in understanding the operations of the EJI, we closely examined the Community Remembrance Project (CRP) (2021) as documented by the catalog. The CRP includes a three-pronged campaign:

  1. Soil Collection Community Project (p. 78)
  2. Historical Marker Projects (p. 92)
  3. Racial Justice Essay Contest (p. 106).

This trio represents incremental steps in the service of a larger goal, which, ultimately is to create a national memorial that acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice.

To that end, EJI (2021) seeks to place a monument (like those represented in the NMPJ) in local communities around the country as “part of a larger movement to create an era of restorative truth-telling and justice that changes the social consciousness of our nation” (p. 119). However, the catalog clearly explains that monument placement is to be considered the last step in an extensive community-engaged project (see duplicate monuments in Figure 3). As Stevenson writes, “The monument placement isn’t meaningful unless it’s surrounded by increased consciousness” (p. 121). Truth-telling efforts in communities are intended to be genuine and sustained—thus, EJI focuses on the importance of the CRP as “the most substantive and impactful features of a larger racial justice movement” (p. 123). We see in each of these campaigns the tactics deployed by EJI towards achieving its ultimate goal.


We employed several levels of analysis in this study. As earlier indicated, our data was derived from the EJI Catalog which includes Soil Collection, Racial Justice Essay Contest, and Historical Marker Program. We employed a rhetorical critical analysis based on Campbell & Burkholder (1996) to systematically illuminate and evaluate the selected artifacts. That allowed us to assess the overall communicative purpose of the artifacts and how they function to realize that purpose. We performed a detailed description of the artifacts, situated them in their relevant historical context, and critically evaluated their effects, values, and artistic traits. This level of rhetorical critical analysis helped us elaborate on the EJI’s tactical approach to HMTs that we observed. Through this approach, we were able to critically consider the meanings of tactics in addressing questions of community and memorializing the lives of the victims of terror lynching.

For the next level of analysis, we took up the 4Rs heuristic articulated by Walton et al. (2019) to study EJI’s approach to redressing inequalities, namely—Recognize, Reveal, Reject, and Replace. We contend that through tactics and 4Rs, the work of the EJI truth-telling efforts intervene in the country’s racist public memory system. For our analysis, we considered Walton et al.’s description of each of the 4Rs and considered how EJI was recognizing, revealing, rejecting, or replacing via the actions of a CRP. The 4Rs can be applied to various scenarios, groups, or applications, but we focus here on how EJI enacts these four principles and in conjunction with community partners that we find EJI’s Historical Markers, Soil Collection, and Racial Justice Essay Contest as key to their tactical interventions.

The first R, Recognize, begins at the thinking level to “recogniz[e] injustices, systems of oppression, and our own compliance in them” (Walton et al., 2019 p. 133). We coded a tactic as “recognize” in the EJI Catalog if it described injustice in a community. Since a CRP focuses on the erasure of Black history in many communities, the “recognize” step is depicted in the catalog by a community realizing that a public memory injustice has occurred and considering the role that members in a community have played in the oppression. The second R, Reveal, extends thinking into action as it is characterized by educating and “revealing these injustices, systemic oppressions, and complicities to others as a call-to-action and organization/social/political change” (Walton et al., 2019 p. 133). We coded a tactic as “reveal” in the catalog if it highlighted how community members could work collaboratively to address the injustice. The third R, Reject, continues the action-oriented framework established and seeks to reject “injustices, systemic oppressions, and opportunities to perpetuate them” (p. 133). We coded a tactic as “reject” in the catalog if it described specific ways that a community could resist racist white-centric public memory. And the final R, Replace, lays out ways for “replacing unjust and oppressive practices with intersectional, coalition-led practices” (p. 133). We coded a tactic as “replace” if it constituted a change or material action, like placing a new HMT in a community or hosting a march to remember Black community members who were lynched. Since Walton et al. argue that the 4Rs as intersectional and coalitional, we note the ways that CRPs are coalition-led groups that seek to replace oppressive behaviors, structures, or decisions. These Rs help us to emphasize how EJI works alongside community organizations to research lynchings, write the text of a historical marker, fund the creation of that marker, and help community members connect with others in the area for the marker’s placement.


Soil Collection

The first tactic, soil collection, represents one of the ways that EJI partners with communities by “commemorat[ing] and recogniz[ing] the traumatic era of racial terror by collecting soil from lynching sites” (EJI, 2021, p. 78). This research stage of soil collection demonstrates how the EJI encourages a CRP to first recognize the injustices and violence, which is the first R (Walton et al., 2019, p. 133). The process of soil collection begins with a CRP’s research of local lynchings, given that these lynchings were a communal rural phenomenon. EJI (2021) provides a number of resources, including several reports that document various eras of racial injustice, including Slavery in America, Reconstruction in America, Lynching in America, Targeting Black Veterans, Segregation in America, and Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection (p. 128). These reports, along with other educational resources, provide a foundation for CRPs to research local lynchings in their communities. Researching the details of specific lynchings serves two purposes. First, the data directly informs the writing of the historical marker, and second, the information helps a CRP pinpoint where the lynching took place. Once a CRP has accumulated enough data, they can plan a range of events to memorialize the person (or persons) who were lynched (p. 78).

Stevenson explains the significance of soil collection: “In the soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil there is the blood of the 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” (EJI, 2021, p. 81). The expression “if these walls could talk” is perhaps best suited to understanding the significance of the soil as a witness to the lynchings, a recognition of the symbolic meaning encased in this place. And as this soil is collected from sites that are known to be locations of the brutal lynchings, we consider this a revealing act. Moreover, the soil collection often includes a ceremony honoring the life of the deceased. That soil is placed in a jar engraved with the name of the victim or marked “unknown” (if the victim’s name is not known) along with the date and location of their killing. The jar is then sent to the Legacy Museum where it is displayed alongside others. Other times, a CRP may choose to place jars in local communities’ spaces with a lot of public interaction, like libraries, community centers, and history museums (p. 79). The various local and national ceremonies and jar placement operations showcase how the EJI works with a CRP to reveal and reject injustices and violent oppressions, which are the second and third Rs (Walton et al., p. 133). And they are a recognition of the deceased’s humanity who, in this moment, is given a sendoff with rites associated with and befitting death. The action satisfies people’s desire for their bodies to be properly interred, which is a crucial social dynamic that returns the dead to their place of origin. These bodies were denied this sacred act when victims were lynched, their bodies publicly displayed, often for several days, and parts of their bodies sold and distributed.

The soil collection is a somber ceremony that is replete with the ritual functions of death, mourning, and funeral oration. But it is not simply ritual for its own sake, for it achieves meaning and function beyond the moment. Soil collections generate a kind of knowledge that resurrects the memory of the lynched victim akin to an “urn of ashes” from a cremation. Those who are present are constituted as witnesses to this act by recreating the act of a funeral. The energy associated with such a ritual might prompt them to consider their place in restoring a sense of harmony even in the face of brutal injustice of a life mourned. Such discourse induces the kind of narrative that is not limited to that space and time. Moreover, during the ceremony which is attended by family members, volunteers and interfaith clergy, the name leads to “hosting community conversations” (pg. 39) and “reflective gatherings” (p. 65) as acts constitutive of community. The end result of these acts is preserving the memory of the deceased, whose life was literally snuffed without dignity. As Allison Bantimba, coalition liaison for the Fulton County Remembrance Coalition explains, “We want to change the narrative around how we talk about our history . . . Most of this happened in public spaces. People kept souvenirs. There were postcards. It really was terrorism, and we’ve never acknowledged the severity of it and that it continues in various forms” (EJI, 2021, pp. 90–91). Coalitions, like the ones described in the catalog, verify how CRPs not only recognize, reveal, and reject racial oppression, but they also replace these injustices through these coalition-led efforts (Walton et al., 2019, p. 133). Moreover, this somber ceremony stands in contrast to the celebratory gatherings and public display of white power that accompanied terror lynching that left a chilling effect on Black communities.

And these tactics have led to broader policy initiatives such that at state levels like Maryland, the cause of reconciliation has been taken up through House Bill 307, which establishes a Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2019). This commission is authorized to do the work that EJI does including researching (to reveal sites of lynching) and holding public gatherings that memorialize the deceased. Thus, what began as a simple act of collecting soil has paid off monumentally at state level which would otherwise never have been the case. While much of the United States has averted its gaze from atrocities committed against Black Americans whose family members were lynched, the EJI, through its tactics, has not created divisions as was feared. Instead, it has created a human bond and ushered in a new paradigm of social interaction.

Soil collection in the EJI’s tactical arsenal appears at once mundane and imaginative. In any case, it satisfies de Certeau’s (1984) exemplar of tactics as acts that emerge from quotidian practices of “the weak” appropriated towards their own ends. While he never imagined soil collection as an act of the weak, de Certeau would nevertheless consider this an ordinary and activist act that inverts the “strategies of public space and silently organiz[ing] the language” (De Certeau, 1984, p. 66). And it is consistent with EJI’s work of revealing and exposing the injustices of old. Not only that, but it is also a call to community partners to redress the present. Cook, Logan, and Parman (2018), who examined the relationship between segregation and lynching in the South, where interracial violence was at its most extreme, found that interracial violence and Black lynching was highly correlated with segregation. Moreover, those patterns of violence persist today. They are, however, manifested differently, mostly through the disinvestment in public goods (Cook, et al, 2018).

Unearthing the terror through the tactics of soil collection draw a through line from slavery to segregation and the violence associated with it and modern-day injustices. They are also consistent with Kimball’s (2017) articulation of a kind of “tactical technical communication,” that characterized the work that ordinary people do to reframe official forms of technical communication “on their own, working outside of, between, and even counter to organizations” (p. 1). He demonstrated that technical communication becomes tactical when everyday users appropriate “technology to increase their freedom of agency and their involvement in shared cultural narratives” (Kimball, 2006, p. 68). The institutional failure of state and local government opened up the space into which EJI has stepped to recognize and acknowledge an injustice, which is an active form in(re)producing new schemas of relations that go against hegemonic structures.

Racial Justice Essay Contest

The second tactic, the racial justice essay contest, illustrates EJI’s commitment to “uplift students’ voices in conversations of racial justice and equity” (EJI, 2021, p. 107) through the Racial Justice Essay Contest. Since most CRPs are intentionally diverse and community-led, members often have ties to local school boards, or are educators or students. As a result, a CRP will leverage these organic community relationships to educate, advertise, and involve local high school students. As the essay contest is generally open to 9th–12th grade students who attend public high schools within the county of the CRP, it provides an opportunity for teachers to incorporate EJI’s lesson plans or archival research in the school curriculum priming it ready for students to examine the history of racial injustice in their local community. Considering that EJI funds the essay contest, students can expect awards of at least $5,000 distributed among the winners—although all students who participate receive a gift (p. 107). The logistics of the essay contest are determined by both EJI and a CRP who work collaboratively to build a customized website and to educate the local community about the contest.

The essay contest is a carefully orchestrated iterative set of actions that involve choosing an essay topic based on a historical event documented by the EJI and local to the community from which the student hails; creating a theme and topic capturing that history; (the student) carrying out research on the selected theme and topic; and finally, writing an essay responding to this prompt. Where Soil Collection addresses the materiality of memory by both recognizing and revealing specific acts of racial terror, the Racial Justice Essay Contest invites high school students to investigate racial injustice in their hometown, which encourages community members to recognize, reveal, and reject injustice and racism. The Lee County Remembrance Project (a CRP) in Lee County, Alabama, for example, provided a prompt for students participating in the essay:

A myth of Black inferiority and white supremacy was developed to justify slavery in the United States. Even though we ended chattel slavery, we did not end the myth of racial difference. EJI believes we need a new era of truth and justice that starts with confronting our history of racial injustice. Based on the theme or topic and historical event you selected, how does the history of racial injustice help to explain present-day injustice in our society? How can this history be overcome in order to change the challenges our nation is facing today? (EJI Lee County)

While just one example of an essay prompt, this instance challenges students to recognize (the first R) the injustices that led to terror lynching. Because the essay prompt invites writers to connect the past to the present, it enables writers to reject racial hierarchy and to instead reveal equal justice (the third and fourth Rs).

The essay contest is a good example of tactical engagement by students in the lives of their fellow citizens whose demise has otherwise not been acknowledged. As a tactic, the essay contest provides an opportunity for students in school related activities to encounter subject matter that is different from the mandated high school curriculum. That curriculum, which is part of States’ strategy, sidesteps the legacy of slavery and lynching as Harriot (2020) finds from his analysis of school textbooks sanctioned in most Southern states. Harriot singles out the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s “outsized role” in downplaying the role slavery plays in the early history of the country (para 10). Through a revisionist history that includes “happy slaves and brave, honorable white men” who championed states’ rights, those textbooks dominated the way history was taught in large swathes of the south. The essay contest directly challenges that history by working with primary and community tools of research to uncover the real history surrounding the lives and deaths of these human beings. Search research is an invaluable tactic for user-producers in empowering other communities. Moreover, given that events surrounding the essay contest are tightly interwoven in the CRP with contest winners awarded scholarships and given room to read their essays at the installation of the HMT memorializing an individual in the respective community, the celebratory nature of the essay contest allows for wider circulation and participation in racial justice and equity (p. 107). The essay contest recognizes the injustice of racial lynching even as the process of research reveals the details associated with those deaths. And the prompt gets students to reject the systems that made possible the heinous crime of terror lynching and to suggest just systems in their place.

Historical Marker Project

The Historical Marker Project is motivated by Stevenson’s view that “the public narrative a nation created about what is important is reflected in memorials and monuments . . . in who is honored, what is remembered” (EJI, 2021). To confront the historical legacy of terror lynching and create a counternarrative of who is memorialized, the Historical Marker Project (HMP), enacts all 4Rs—Recognize, Reveal, Reject, and Replace. As a collaborative, community-engaged project, the HMP compels people to form coalitions that educate others about racial injustice, combat narratives of white supremacy, and speak truth into the spaces and places that have been whitewashed by historical commissions. EJI (2021) positions a historical marker as “a compelling tool [that creates] a permanent record of racial terror violence” so that the entire community can be “expos[ed] to our shared history of racial injustice” (p. 93). This exposure is not intended to create guilt for white community members; rather, it is created as a tool for healing. Truth-telling promotes healing when it is crafted with humility and grace (see Walton et al., 2019 on “change-making with humility” p. 134). The ceremony itself serves as a collective of grief and mourning associated with interment. It echoes, in the words of Frederick Douglass (1854), “the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish” (p. 245).

The HMP functions as a coalition in that community members work together to build connections with surviving family members of individuals who were lynched, research the events surrounding the lynching, define a geographical region where the lynching took place, write the text, and work with EJI to revise the text, receive the physical marker, and establish a ceremony for its unveiling (EJI 2021, pp. 94–95). The HMP illustrates one of EJI’s most overt tactics. Since historical commissions are generally opposed to placing markers that discuss lynching and other racialized oppressions, the HMP provides a different path for community members. First, instead of needing approval from county and state commissions, community members can form a coalition and work with EJI to place an HMT in their town/city. This tactic alone is transformative, especially because many historical commissions purposely exclude multiply marginalized people from the HM process through overly complex applications, financial obligations, and literacy tests (O’Brien, 2021).

Applying for HMT using the state apparatus is an isolating, confusing, and exclusionary process, but as a result of the EJI’s tactics, placing an HMT in local communities becomes a collaborative, inclusive process. This work is done with the CRPs, who research the lynching without constraints from literacy “hoops” that exclude people from participating in the memorialization process. Likewise, because a CRP is an intersectional coalition composed of community activists, academics, students, local church members, government officers, and laypeople, CRP members who take part in the HMP can work together to perform the research and writing of the HMTs (EJI, 2021, p. 93). Likewise, the CRP members who research and write the HMT work alongside the EJI through the research and revision process and have the benefit of EJI’s vast databases for information (p. 14). Secondly, EJI supervises the logistics of and pays for the HM placement, which includes the fabrication of the actual marker and the revision of the text. The text is placed on both sides of the marker with one side narrating the life of the victim being memorialized and the other contextualizing the trauma and legacy of terror in which the victim was lynched. Such a tactic reveals or brings forth what has been excluded in the accounts of the U.S. South.


The work of the EJI as we discuss it here shows a marked difference from the outlook of state and local government in which those institution’s operational frameworks suppress information on terror lynching. Our study demonstrates that out of state and local government’s fixed locales of power, the inevitable tactics of the powerless situated in the EJI began to emerge (de Certeau, 1988, p. xii). As Stevenson has long argued, these injustices are “wrapped in America’s unexamined history” of slavery (Schneider, 2019) in which a through line “from slavery to lynching to mass incarceration” not to mention the excessive punishment disproportionately meted out to the descendants of enslaved people explains the present (Stevenson, 2019). Indeed, Stevenson’s linking of past injustices to present outcomes has been borne out in the literature. Economists Logan and Parman (2017) have established links between past violence in the South and modern outcomes such as “homicide rates, lack of compliance with hate laws, and urban segregation patterns” (Logan and Parman, 2017, p. 165). EJI’s work counters state and local governments’ downplaying of racism and slavery’s centrality to U.S. history thereby perpetuating the narrative that not only was slavery itself not contentious, but also a positive good.

EJI’s CRP efforts with the Historical Marker Project (HMP) clearly demonstrate how coalitions can tactically intervene in racist systems—like historical commissions that reject truth-telling efforts—by creating a different path for historical markers to be erected in communities. Even the location of the EJI is tactical. The EJI is based in Alabama, a state known simultaneously as the cradle of the confederacy and the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement. Thus, the location of the EJI is itself a tactical stance against state subjugation and perhaps a continuation of the battle of civil rights post confederacy. If the work of the EJI in defending the rights of the incarcerated in courts of law might have been considered invisible and abstract, its launch of the Legacy Museum (LM) and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (NMPJ) is not.

Since Kimball’s (2006) articulation of tactics as extra-institutional forms of technical communication, the aperture of technical communication has expanded, giving the discipline the vocabulary to explain the shift from passive users of technical communication products to active producers. Such active producers readily participate in what Kimball (2017) calls “radical sharing” (p. 4) (see Bellwoar, 2012; van Ittersum 2014; Walwema, Sarat-St. Peter, and Chong, 2019)—a form of tactical technical communication in which the creative use of the practice of everyday life caters to the needs of those left out of the power structures enshrined in their strategic intent. As well, a special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly on Black Technical Communication (Mckoy et al., 2022) elucidates the form of technical communication at play in the work of the EJI’s efforts to confront, in essence, the Lost Cause narrative that permeates American discourse. Specifically, the U.S. South’s failure to acknowledge terror lynching of Black Americans, whose frequency, historians point out, coincided with the erection of monuments (SPLC, 2021). Failure to grapple with this tragic history or worse, the tendency to cover it up, has generated insecurities that birth other forms of violence like the kind we saw at Charleston’s AME Mother Emanuel Church. EJI is attempting to foil this narrative by drawing from, borrowing, adapting, and even institutionalizing the strategies of veneration consistent with Black culture and history for new ends not previously catered to. It is striking that some of the displays of the HMT, for example, are directly juxtaposed with the statues of those the state(s) chose to honor—thus, telling the whole story.


As we have shown, the EJI’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, had argued that it was odd for the United States not to memorialize its victims of lynching. He contrasted this stance with that of other nations’ comparable memorials to apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, and the holocaust in Germany. Concerned that not only were there no memorials to lynching victims in a nation awash in memorials to and preservation of the confederacy, the dominant narrative erased victims’ names and the stories surrounding their lynching (see Bunn, 2017). It is within this vision that the NMPJ and LM, both dedicated to victims of white supremacy, were launched in Montgomery, Alabama. Needless to say, the memorial has attracted criticism from the same people who honor the confederacy with accusations of “opening up old wounds” and “let sleeping dogs lie” (Levin, 2018).

We have shown how this work has circumvented state and local government priorities that have long silenced their historical legacies of terror lynching to offer a historical telling of Black history from enslavement to mass incarceration. Ultimately, this work lays bare to TPC the manner in which the EJI centers the historical telling of Black history in the United States as critical in imagining a socially just nation in which restorative justice can be enacted. We agree with the EJI’s practical belief that this nation’s history of racial injustice has tainted its ability to create an equitable society and that contending with this historical past in all its truths will enable us as a society to root out systemic injustice. Moreover, to center Black people as the subject of the Civil War renders them agents of their story, places them in the history that made HMTs necessary in the first place and tells a complete rather than competing story.


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April L. O’Brien is an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University. Her research and teaching interests include public memory, countermemory, technical and professional communication, and social justice. She has published in Technical Communication Quarterly, enculturation, and Present Tense. Her current coauthored book project theorizes a rhetoric of countermemory. She is available at aprilobrien@shsu.edu.

Josephine Walwema is with the English Department at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Walwema investigates the ethics of agency, inclusion and exclusion as social justice concerns in the Americas and the Global South. Her work has been published in major technical communication journals including Technical Communication, IEEE Transactions, JTWC, and JBTC. Her most recent work on “Black Women Realizing Liberated Futures” was published in Technical Communication Quarterly, and a guest-edited special issue on 21st Century Ethics in Technical Communication was published by the Journal of Business and Technical Communication.

[1]     Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old Black teenager, was brutally lynched in Waco, Texas for a crime that he did not commit. He was convicted after four minutes of deliberation.