As I read Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson I thought about the importance of understanding Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations):
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Paradoxically, the dark act of the lynching of Emmett Till on August 27/28, 1955 shined a light on a certain people in a certain place who did not understand this truth. Mrs. Till-Mobley’s memory and recollection of the events in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi during that late summer of 1955 is a reminder to all people in all places that the devaluation of the humanity of one group of people by another group of people is not only wrong but also is deadly.
I would argue that most white people in the South in the United States during “The Civil Rights Era” thought in their minds and believed in their hearts that black people were not born free and equal in dignity and rights. They thought and believed that white people were superior to black people and that black people should know and remain in their inferior place in Southern society. These thoughts and beliefs made them think and feel that the life of a black person was not equal to the life of a white person. In the case of Emmett Till it could be argued that jurors in Tallahatchie County thought and felt that the life of a black person was not equal to the pride of white people.
Whitaker would write that the jurors didn’t doubt that Bryant and Milam had killed Emmett. They didn’t doubt that at all. The jurors heard one thing that was important to them, and that was a white woman’s claim that a black boy had insulted her. That was all they needed to hear. It was all they needed to know. In the end, according to Whitaker, it was all they would consider in making up their minds. (199)
This raises an important question for me as a white person in the South in the United States in the 21st Century. Are there group of people whose humanity I devalue? How about Muslims? How about undocumented workers? Are all Muslims fascists? Are all undocumented workers illegal aliens? Is my life, is my pride, of greater value than their lives?
I think about this question, “Is one life of greater value than another life?”, when I remember and recollect the lives of my friends in Mali, West Africa. I wonder how many Americans see on television the loss of life of an African person or of a person who lives in the Third World and think, “That is terrible, but they are used to poverty, disease, and war so death doesn’t affect them as much as it affects us.” I can argue from experience that my African friends grieved as deeply during the death of a loved one as we here in America grieve. What does this mean for me and how I live my life?
One part of the book that deeply moved me was the way Mrs. Till-Mobley’s memory and recollection of her and Emmett’s lives painted a human picture for the world to see.
And, as I explained it all, I turned from the prosecutor to the jurors. I wanted to talk to them, to reach them directly. I had to. If there was any chance at all that they might even consider a murder conviction, let alone hand one down, then they were going to have to get beyond some things. They had to see past the color of a witness’s skin and feel the anguish of a mother’s loss. (178)
To me, this is why this book and other personal narratives of the Civil Rights Movement are so very important. They help us see beyond events, names, and places into hearts and faces of human beings, human beings who are like me and who I am like in every way, human beings whose hearts and faces have been crushed and marred by hatred and injustice, human beings who have been mended and have mended with forgiveness, faith, hope, and love.
Another part of the book that deeply moved me was the way Mrs. Till-Mobley reflected on the acquittal of Bryant and Milam on the charges of the death of her son.
I wonder how different things might have been if the laws and practices of Tallahatchie County had been different. What if blacks could vote there and had qualified to be on that jury? Would there have been enough black folks with the courage of Papa Mose or Willie Reed to convict two white men of murdering a black boy? Could that have happened? What if the law had allowed women to serve then? What if only one woman had been allowed on that jury? Even a white woman in Sumner, in Mississippi, in 1955 would have had to feel something for another woman who had felt what I did, wouldn’t she? A mother, someone who understood, as only a mother could, what it felt like to become a mother, what it must feel like to lose a child, a part of yourself. I wonder if a woman could have had much influence over the way things turned out. Then again, a woman did have influence over the whole thing, didn’t she? In this case, a woman was at the very heart of it all, the accusation, the abduction, the acquittal. And, of course, the cause for celebration. (189-190)
Her questions are very important for our society and for me as a powerful person in our society. They remind us that we must work with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies for an integrated society, a society where there is equal representation in place of power (political, cultural, and socio-economic). If power is not equally shared then the group who holds power can “spin” any issue in their favor. I think this can be seen in the way the white powerbrokers in Mississippi during the trial of Emmett Till spun the story to imply that Till’s death was somehow justified, was somehow a statement of, “Things are going to stay the same here…white people and black people are going to stay in their places.”
Since I am preparing to be an elementary school teacher, I am honored to be following in the footsteps of Mrs. Till-Mobley. I was deeply touched as I read in our book about her thoughts and feelings toward the four little boys of the men who murdered her son. She desired to take those boys home with her and raise them to love instead of to hate. She makes a profound point when she says, “We don’t come here with hatred in our hearts. We have to be taught to feel that way. We have to want to be that way, to please the people who teach us to want to be like them.” I think she is correct. I understand this point as I try to be a good parent to my two boys and as I am preparing to be a good teacher to my future students. Who can I be and what can I do to help them understand that “all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” no matter their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or abilities? I think that who I am and what I do toward people who are different from me can make the world a better place because of the influence that will have on the ways my children and my students value humanity.
As I finished this book, I was left with an image of Emmett Till’s stutter. Until his lynching, America’s Constitution had a stutter. The words of that Constitution proclaimed that all people are created equal, but the living out of those words was hardly a proclamation. At best it was a stutter. Especially in the American South all people were not equal de jure. It could be argued that in America as a whole all people were not equal de facto. Till’s lynching caused America to state it’s purpose as a nation over and over again and try to memorize it by mind and by heart – all people are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I think we as a nation are still trying to memorize that truth. Hopefully we will be able to whistle it together as a nation in the near future.
Class Discussion / “The Murder of Emmett Till” Reflection:
Dr. Dunn asked the question, “Why was Emmett Till murdered?” I thought about “dehumanization,” about the fact that within Jim Crow the life of a black person was not as valuable as the life of a white person and that devaluation made it easy and acceptable to kill him. As I pondered this answer one of the young ladies in our class answered that Emmett Till was killed because white people were afraid of the black man’s penis. I remember a black friend of mine in seminary who said this issue of the sexuality of black men was the cause of racial tension between black people and white people. As I watched volume 1 of the “Eyes on the Prize” series I learned that Emmett Till had a picture of a white woman in his wallet, a picture that he showed around the town of Money, Mississippi, a picture that deepened the fear of white people in Money that all black men were just waiting for the chance to have sex with white women, a chance that would surely come with integration. I think that this myth of the black man’s sexuality plays a part in the dehumanization of all black people. I also think the idea of the “pure, Southern white woman that must be protected from the black man at all cost plays a part in this dehumanization, too.
During “The Murder of Emmett Till” documentary from American Experience I wrote down this question, “Was Roy Bryant ‘poor white trash’?” I wondered because he was a store owner and a WW II veteran. The term “poor white trash” bothers me because it is a way to use words to tear down and destroy, to use words to dehumanize human beings. The term also bothers me because it can be used as a way to excuse the political leaders, intelligentsia, and silent white majority of the old South from their complicity in the violence against the Civil Rights Movement. They could say, “The violence was carried out by ‘poor white trash.’
During the documentary I was moved by a phrase from the prosecutor of the Emmett Till murder trial in his opening argument. He stated that Bryant and Milam “killed Emmett Till, a human being.” I wonder how many white people in the courtroom and around Money, Mississippi thought that Emmett Till, or any black person, was indeed a human being.
I was also moved by a phrase from Mose Wright about his testimony against Bryant and Milam (was he the first black man on record to stand and point out guilty white men in a Mississippi courtroom?) He said, “I had to tell it like it was.” I remember that “to tell it like it was” in those Jim Crow days was to say, “I am willing to die for the truth.” Many people did die because they told it like it was, because they said in word and act that the “Southern way of life” was wrong.
As I continue on in this class I am impressed by some of the wise comments from the young women in my class. There are no young men – I am the only male student in the class. Because of my age and my life experience I have had time to think about some of the issues we are struggling through in class. I am still thinking and feeling my way through these issues. I am thankful that some of the students in my class are beginning to think and feel their way through them at young ages. They give me hope.