Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Echoes Of History: 1955 and 2017

From this tragedy large, diverse groups of people organized a movement that grew to transform a nation, not sufficiently but certainly meaningfully. What matters most is what we have and what we will do with what we do know. We must look at the facts squarely ... The bloody and unjust arc of our history will not bend upward if we merely pretend that history did not happen here.
- Timothy B. Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till

As a species, we are terrible students of history. Although its tools have become much more refined over the years, its lessons seem all too frequently lost on many, either because we prefer comforting illusions or we see them through narrow ideological lenses. Refusing to confront ugly truths ensures their longevity.

One of the most emotionally difficult books I have read in a long time is The Blood of Emmett Till. This excerpt from a NYT review sums up the murder of Till, the 14-year-old black lad from Chicago who, in the summer of 1955, was visiting relatives in Mississippi:
On a Wednesday evening in August, Till allegedly flirted with and grabbed the hand of Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who worked as the cashier at a local market. According to recovered court transcripts released by the F.B.I. in 2007, he let out a “wolf whistle” as she exited the store to get a gun from her car. Bryant later informed her husband and his half brother, who proceeded to uphold a grim tradition: Till was abducted, beaten, shot in the head and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. A 74-pound gin fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire, with the hope that he would never be found.
Despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt, his murderers were, in the Southern tradition of the time, found not guilty. Despite the absence of justice, Till's mother, an indefatigable woman, changed the course of civil rights history by insisting that the horribly mutilated body of her son rest in an open coffin, of which photographs were published in prominent magazines, while an estimated 240,000 filed by his casket.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to revisit the horrific details explored in the book that go well beyond the murder of a young teen. Rather, it is to draw parallels between the language and justifications of the racists of Till's time with those of the contemporary white supremacist movement. While over 60 years separate the two eras, the echoes of history are evident for all who care to look.

The most obvious parallel evolves around efforts to discredit the veracity of events. Examples of this 'strategy' abound in the book:
The editor of the Picayune Item snarled that a "prejudiced communistic inspired NAACP" could not "not blacken the name of the great sovereign state of Mississippi, regardless of their claims of Negro Haters, lynching, or whatever [emphasis mine].
Sherriff Strider, a racist who was friends with the accused, sought to constantly undermine the evidence and question whether or not the body was, in fact, that of Till's, telling reporters the following:
"The body we took from the river looked more like that of a grown man instead of a young boy. It was also more decomposed than it should have been after that short a stay in the water."
Soon after, Strider told reporters, "This whole thing looks like a deal made up by the NAACP."

During the trial, Strider was happy to share his racist view with reporters, disguised as questioning the evidence:
"It just seems to me that the evidence is getting slimmer and slimmer. I'm chasing down some evidence now that the killing might have been planned and plotted by the NAACP."
Of course, there was no such evidence. Just as there was no evidence to support a convenient claim that Till had been spirited out of Mississippi and was now living in Detroit, again part of the larger effort to cast doubt on the evidence and the integrity of the NAACP.

Why the attacks on the NAACP? Besides trying to sow doubts about the murder, it was part of a pattern of extreme resistance to school integration and voting rights that Hodding Carter wrote about in The Saturday Evening Post:
Whites considered the NAACP "the fountainhead of all evil and woe," and the factual nature of most of the NAACP's bills of particulars ... doesn't help make its accusations any more acceptable. "The hatred that is concentrated upon the NAACP surpasses in its intensity any emotional reaction that I have witnessed in my southern lifetime." This reflected the NAACP's demands for voting rights and school integration as much as it did their protests over the Till case.
Any fair-minded person who reads The Blood of Emmett Till cannot emerge from the experience without a deep sense of outrage over the horrible injustices meted out to Black people over the years, as well as a profound admiration for those extraordinary souls who, countless times, braved both physical and economic reprisal in their long battle to be treated exactly as they were: American citizens demanding their full rights.

And the battle continues today. In Part 11 of this post, I will look at the tactics employed by white supremacists today, tactics that eerily echo those of a much earlier time as the racists among us seek to turn back the clock and once more subjugate those they deem their inferiors.


  1. Having spent a little time in the American South, Lorne, I'm deeply troubled by echoes of language which I had hoped was archaic.

    1. Everyone needs to pay closer attention to history, Owen. Otherwise, what is old is new again, including the cant of the racists. Your post today provides a good history lesson that many should take note of.

  2. I remember when Obama first got elected Lorne, the comments against him were as Jimmy Carter said based on racism. I was floored when Obama gave his State of the Union address, a congressman or senator yelled out "liar". There is no way he would have done that to a white president. Not everybody realizes how institutionalized and systemic racism in the state was and as we see now still is. What bothers me is the venomous hatred that racist slurs are uttered.

    I remember the little black girl who was being escorted by guards to a school when integration first started. She was about 8 yrs. old. There was white adult men and women leaning over and screaming at her. The expression on their faces was pure hatred. I think one of the pictures became quite famous.
    This was done to a child!!

    I'm glad your addressing this subject. We have to ask why racism is still predominate in the 21st century. Has it come back or did not really go way?

    I'm looking forward to part11.

    1. I remember the picture you are referring to, Pamela. It is an iconic reflection of the utter ugliness of racism.