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November 12, 2004

On Atrocities…

Sometimes, we forget.

It’s easy to forget just how racist our society was when we focus on how racist it remains. I appreciate how people under about 45 look around them in anger, and that’s the appropriate response. But we need to remind ourselves of the victories and use that energy to move forward. It doesn’t hurt to look around and see the lack of “for whites only” signs.

Case in point: Our Justice Department, such as it is, has reopened the Emmett Till case.

If you don’t know about Emmett Till, Google the phrase and learn about one of the most significant stories of the latter half of the 20th Century. You need to know the details, but here’s the quick and short version, from OnRamparts.org:

In 1954, Emmett Till, a fourteen year old African-American from Chicago was visiting his relatives in Mississippi. Not use to the Jim Crow South, to black subservience to whites, and wanting to impress his relatives white his "northern smoothness", Till spoke "out of place" to a white woman in a grocery store. Till's relatives claim he merely said hello or some other mundane nicety to a white woman, while others say he was much more "fresh" with her than that. Regardless, the next day, his body was found floating in the river, his face and head so badly beaten, he was hardly recognizable. He was taken back north to Chicago for his burial, which his mother demanded be open casket, so everyone could see what they had done to her son. JET magazine published his photograph on the front cover.
Down in Mississippi, the husband and brother in law of the woman Till "accosted" were arrested and put on trial for murder. In a segregated courtroom, with Till's mother present, an all white jury found both men not guilty of murder in less than one hour. Even thoug, Mose Wright, Till's uncle, risking his own life, stood before the courtroom and identified both as Till's killers.

I should add that once they had safely beaten the rap, the two killers proudly acknowledged their actions on a television interview.

Two or three times each year, Linda and I drive past the tribute to Emmett Till over on Stony Island Boulevard, as we’re completing our drive in to Chicago. Recently, PBS ran a good documentary about the subject, and when the Justice Department reopened the case (several accomplices, including the female “victim,” remain alive) 60 Minutes did a good piece as well. The Till case is actually trendy right now, and that’s fine. That’s how people learn.

So it was a bit of a shock when, last week, I came across the May 1956 issue of Confidential magazine. If you had never come across this thing, you’d have to see a couple of issues in order to fully appreciate its racket. They outed people. “Tells the facts and names the names” their slogan stated. The cover stories in this particular issue: How Sumner Wells, under secretary of state from 1937 to 1943 (again; this story was published in 1956) “had that lavender stripe even when he was second in command of the State Department.” Why Sinatra is the Tarzan of the boudoir. The Joe who said “no” to Jane Russell. And so on.

In that coveted space above Confidential’s massive logo – the one editorial space seen on the widest range of newsstand racks – was the following headline:


The story was an excerpt from William Bradford Huie’s forthcoming book, The Emmett Till Story. It turns out that, in the words of the author, both father and son had a certain passion for white women (Huie maintains 14 year old Emmett asked the white woman “for a date,” as though that justified his astonishingly brutal execution). I quote:

The sardonic twist is this: Young Till’s father, Private Louis Till, “lost his life” in Europe during the Second World War. Therefore, in the propaganda slugging set off by the homicide, the “anti-South” factions exploited this sire who “had made the supreme sacrifice on the alter of liberty.”
… One October 10, 1955, LIFE, in an editorial, said: “Emmett Till had only his life to lose, and many others have done that, including his soldier-father who was killed in France fighting for the American proposition that all men are equal.”
… The LIFE editorial was just enough to push Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland to the telephone. He called the Army’s Judge Advocate General and said: “Let me seethat ‘heroic’ Louis Till’s file!”
The Army record: “Private Till was hanged for the premeditated murder of Anna Zanchi, and the rape of Benni Lucretzia and Frieda Mari, all of Civitavecchia, Italy.”

And this is relevant to the Emmett Till torture and slaying … how? What’s the connection here? Like father like son; of course Emmett was trying to rape and/or slaughter our white Southern flower – look at what his daddy did!” It’s all justifiable now, isn’t it?

This “mad cow disease” type of logic was commonplace not too long ago. It’s how we as a people justified our bigotry. And sold a lot of magazines, I might add.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. As we look to those 900 miles ahead of us, let us not forget the 100 miles we’ve walked.

Posted by Mike Gold at November 12, 2004 02:49 PM

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Quote: "Till's relatives claim he merely said hello or some other mundane nicety to a white woman, while others say he was much more "fresh" with her than that. Regardless,...."

Seems you suffer from the same reasoning problem of which you accuse others. You attmept to down play certain facts and focus upon others.

The facts surounding what Till said or didn't say way heaviest in this case. It is unfotunate when anyone looses a life, but the facts that we cannot discern (although, one of his relatives who was an eyewitness stated that he was forward with the girl)would make the clear line of how one view's the consequences and the actions of the killers.

In the end, one must assume one of two views.
Either he was an incocent 14 year old, or he was a male youth with a bit too much moxy.

If it is the former, it is a trajedy.
If it is the latter, the case is simply the extreme consequences of a young male not heeding the age-old adage that one never covets another man's wife.

The reason why we don't disrespect woman in our society, is not because we think it is intrinsically not good, it is because we know that at some point a husband or other male will take offence. That does not mean that we simply fear getting yelled at or having a nose broken, it is that we ultimately fear being killed. For in the judgment of most men, a man is justified in killing for honor, especially in offensives against his wife, regardless of what society may or may not place in it's social contracts.

Posted by: John at June 1, 2005 04:24 PM

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