Saturday, August 29, 2015

Emmett Till

I have vague memories of the news stories of Emmett Till's murder 60 years ago. I have more memories of the outrage at the acquittal some weeks later of the men who did it. But I also knew that at the time in Money, Mississippi, whatever white men did to black folks was considered right and just and proper by definition, and there wasn't a damn thing black folks could do about it.

It wasn't just in Money, Mississippi, either. Los Angeles (where I lived at the time) and many other parts of California had rules almost as broad regarding the impunity of white people to do to black and brown folks pretty much whatever they wanted. There was very little the victims could do about it in California, either.

That was the way it was.

The outrage over the murder of Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers was somewhat muted, therefore. It's not that people weren't upset and angry. Even plenty of white people were. It's that the conditions under which these things happened -- and they did happen with shocking regularity -- were time-honored, even integral to the national sense of itself.

In those days, blackness (and brownness, indeed, every skin-color but whiteness) was criminalized, and that criminalization justified oppression, exploitation, and occasional murder.

That was the way it was.

I've mentioned previously that in those days -- indeed, for all my life until moving to Northern California in 1959 -- I lived in an integrated neighborhood. So far as I was aware, there was no racial animosity. But as I think back about the people who lived there, I suspect there actually was a good deal of white animosity toward the "colored" in the neighborhood -- "colored" which included blacks, Latinos/Chicanos, and Japanese that I can recall, and may have included others I don't recall -- but it was not expressed openly or frequently. Now the neighborhood is almost entirely Latino as is most of the San Gabriel Valley, but from the pictures I've seen recently it appears to be little different than it was 60 and more years ago when I lived there.

Street where I lived facing east c. 2015

Street where I lived facing west c. 2015; our house was the yellow one on the right

While ethnically it has become an almost entirely Latino neighborhood, visually, it is almost the same as it was when I lived there. A few houses have been extensively remodeled, but most haven't been. Some still look like they did when I walked or bicycled through the neighborhood as a boy.

Living in an integrated neighborhood was somewhat exotic in California at the time, but I thought nothing of it because I had never known anything else. It seemed perfectly natural to me. And the story of Emmett Till -- what little we children knew of it at the time -- was frightening to us because it was easy for most of us and for me to identify with him. He was older than I was and so he must have been wiser to the ways of the world, and still he was killed -- they say for whistling at a white woman? That didn't make any sense at all. Boys did that. Nobody paid more than a minute's attention to it unless it got out of hand, annoying, and then some grown up would tell the boy to stop. That's it. So they killed Emmett Till for something most people would simply ignore? What madness was this?

All we children knew of these things was that some adults were just out of their minds crazy and brutal. We all knew it. We had our own mystery stories of kids being killed by grown ups, by their own parents sometimes. We knew it happened. But this case... no, something was bad-wrong, and what was wrong was that two white men killed this black youth, "Negro" was the word then used, out of... spite? Or just because they could? And somehow they knew they'd get away with it if they did.

About 20 years ago I was asked to write a play about Emmett Till's murder, his lynching as it was being referred to. So I did a lot of research on the story, and it was very ugly indeed, especially with regard to that part of Mississippi, to the two men who killed him, and with regard to the so-called "justice" system which acquitted them.

Everything about it reeked.

As I was doing my research, I found a story about a white boy who was kidnapped and murdered at about the same time. I don't remember his name, nor can I recall where the incident took place (it may have been Michigan), but I felt that these stories were parallel examples of something uniquely American, a social and cultural belief system that devalues and enables the extermination of certain lives while protecting the lives of certain others.

The white boy, ultimately, was no more protected and valued than Emmett Till was, you see, and his killer or killers remain unknown to this day. They weren't let off like Emmett Till's killers were. They were simply never found. That's because -- in my estimation -- that incident was swept under the rug. It wasn't investigated more than superficially, and if the authorities had a suspect or suspects in mind, they never pursued it. The boy was dead and it was just as well... or so it seemed.

So I wanted to parallel this case with the case of Emmett Till as an indictment of the broader American social environment in which these sorts of things went on all the time. Well, that didn't fly with the professor who'd asked me to write the play. He didn't want any "white boy" messing up the story of Emmett Till. While I understood his point of view about it, I told him that I thought it was important to broaden the picture by including the similar murder of a white boy and showing how his life in the end was worth no more than that of Emmett Till, but we could not reach an agreement on that aspect, so the script was never written.

The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to hammer into American consciousness and conscience the fact that to a horrifying degree, black lives don't matter, especially to police and the interests whom the police serve. They are instead killable, disposable, pretty much at will. Until recently, it was almost impossible to get a police officer indicted for the clearly outrageous uses of force employed wildly disproportionately against black and brown people. While indictments are now being issued periodically, provided the case is outrageous enough, we aren't seeing convictions, and still, too often,  police are getting away with murder.

The current situation is remarkably similar to the situation in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, where a black youth could be murdered pretty much at will, and hardly anybody cared a whit. Except for his immediate family, of course.

We aren't seeing so many civilian lynchings -- though they still happen from time to time. Instead, we are seeing a daily body count, four to five a day, of men and women and sometimes children, killed by police who, in effect, have become the delegated lynching squad. Police encounter a black person mouthing off, getting uppity, not being submissive enough or obedient fast enough, or being belligerent, or even doing something wrong, and police feel perfectly justified in killing them, summary execution style, or taking them in and torturing them, or whatever they want to do, because... they think it's their job.

When lynchings by civilian mobs were commonplace in this country, the powers that be thought little or nothing of it. That was the way it was, and nothing could be done about it. Until something was done about it. What was done was mostly social shaming. That took decades to bring the number of lynchings down from hundreds a year to a few to -- officially -- none. Shaming works, but it takes a long time.

President Franklin Roosevelt twice refused to sign anti-lynching legislation proposed and (I believe) passed by Congress in the 1930s. They say he refused to sign so as not to piss off his Southern Democratic base which was filled with crackers, rednecks and lynchers, too. But it wasn't just the white trash he was concerned about. It was the white elites in the Southern Democratic Party, old line Confederates in many cases, those who suffered from Reconstruction or at least white folks claimed to have been its victims. Memories were long. The Lost Cause lived and breathed through these survivors and their descendants. To an extent, it still does.

By the 1930s, the number of lynchings per year had been on the decline, thanks in part to some brave Southern women who were fed up with the mob violence that characterized their part of the country more than any other -- violence which brought shame upon the South. You feel many echoes of it in the story of Tom Robinson as told by Harper Lee in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Life was froughtful for black folks in the South -- it was froughtful everywhere, truth to tell -- and death came often in the night and hideously. Black folks lived in mortal peril every minute.

Emmett Till was from Chicago. He'd been sent South to stay with relatives in Money, Mississippi for the summer before he returned to school in Chicago in the fall. That day was coming soon when he went to the shop in Money to buy some chewing gum (I believe it was) and as he was leaving, they say he whistled at the proprietor's wife who was helming the store in her husband's absence. They say. Accounts vary regarding what Emmett Till actually did -- or didn't do -- that day. The point was that in no way was what he did or didn't do a threat or indecent or what have you.

He had, apparently, "broken code" though. He (apparently) did what black folks in Money, Mississippi, were not allowed to do -- under summary penalty which any white man was allowed to administer by common custom.

That summary penalty could include fiendish tortures and death. A mob may no longer be openly involved, but the result was the same, and the point of it was also the same: to perpetuate white dominance by terrorizing the various "Others" into submission and compliance.

Whatever Emmett Till did that day, his companions knew he was in trouble for breaking code. The assumption is he didn't know that there were certain things he must not do while he was in Mississippi if he valued his life. Yet I suspect he did know most of what he couldn't do, and whatever happened at the store was either a deliberate act of mischief or of defiance. I suspect he did know because he'd been there long enough, he seemed to be extremely social and bright, and it appeared he could pick up social cues well beyond what he was told he could or couldn't do. He was known in the town, too, as were the relatives he was staying with.

He was no stranger.

And he was going back to school in Chicago soon enough.

Whatever he did at that store was no doubt innocent of bad intent, I would say, but it must have rankled Carolyn Bryant to the point that she felt something had to be done or this uppity nigra boy would give the rest of the nigras in the area the wrong idea.

So she told her husband when he got back to the store that something had happened with that nigra boy from Chicago and she didn't like it a bit. Time to teach that boy a lesson, don't you think?

There were certain things in rural Mississippi that simply couldn't be allowed.

Carolyn Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam went out to the house of Emmett's great uncle with whom he was staying and they demanded that the boy be turned over to them for... discipline, I suppose you would call it. The white folks as a rule never saw what they did to black folks as wrong in any way, any more than police today see what they do as wrong when they kill or brutalize to terrorize the way they do.

When you believe that black folks -- or any designated "Other" -- is nothing more than a savage animal, rabid by nature, and should be put down at a moment (the legendary "split-second decision," no?)  and it's your job to do that, to put down the savage, rabid animal, that's what you do, and you do not let conscience or any other form of empathy enter into it.

So Roy and J. W. -- good ol' boys in the time honored Southern tradition -- only did what they had to do. They took Emmett out to the river, beat him senseless and bloody, then shot him in the head and threw his corpse into the Tallahatchie River weighted down with a cotton-gin fan, and then went home and had a beer while they told of their bravery and cunning.

That nigra boy from up North wouldn't cause any more trouble, oh no. And I don't doubt they laughed about it, laughed out loud. They felt proud of what they had done. Remorse wasn't an option.

No more remorse than they would have had killing a stray, rabid dog or a thieving raccoon or a stink-spewing skunk or a skittering palmetto bug. They did no more than any upstanding white person would have done. They got rid of a pest.

The fact that they had to go on trial for their action was an inconvenience but there was essentially no chance whatever that they would be convicted of anything, let alone murder most foul, any more than police officers today -- even if indicted and handed over for trial -- are likely to be convicted of anything at all, no matter what they do to suspects or "subjects" as they are known in the trade.

A white man protecting his white woman from the predation of a rabid, savage black is only doing his proper and necessary duty. Right?

This is exactly the same attitude that informs so many police today. They are told and they are trained to believe that killing is their highest and most honorable duty to those they serve. They are told and they are trained to believe that the greatest threat to themselves and their women are black males. They are told and they are trained to believe that their first duty is to protect themselves, and that black males are the biggest threat to their personal safety and security; they must be on constant guard in any encounter with a black person, particularly with black males. And they must be ready to kill instantly if they perceive anything that might be a threat from the subject.

That's what they are told and are trained to believe.

They act as if they must make periodic examples of blacks and browns and designated Others -- by maiming and killing them -- or the rest of the "savages" would get the wrong idea and get out of line. So they kill. And kill and kill some more. Just doing their jobs.

Roy and J. W. were doing the same thing in the backwater of Money, Mississippi back in 1955. I guess the big bellied sheriff wouldn't have done it for them. Well, no. He actually was the one who arrested them. No, if the good ol' boys had gone to the sheriff about Emmett Till's offense, the sheriff would have laughed in their faces. Emmett broke code but he did not break a law, no matter how the good ol' boys tried to exaggerate what happened. The sheriff likely would have told the good ol' boys that they would have to take care of it theirownselves. And they might get into a bit of trouble if they did. "Good luck, boys."

Police are left to use their own judgement in their encounters with the public, especially using their own judgement with regard to use of lethal force against... "subjects."  They may have to account for their actions, but they will most likely never face serious consequences -- such as conviction in a court of law. That's reserved almost entirely for gross corruption and sexual impropriety. Not for killing and brutality while on the job.

White men had to act on their own in rural Mississippi back in 1955 because the law would not do it for them.

In 2015, however, police take care of these problems so white men don't have to do it on their own.

Progress, right?

The murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of their murderers in 1955 caused such a strong reaction among so many people because it was so outrageous -- and ultimately so frightening -- that it couldn't be allowed to pass without notice. The murder victim was a child. The murderers were a couple of no-account white bucks, tobacco spitting, arrogant creeps, the infestation and ruin of the South. Something had to be done.

But nothing was.

Roy and J. W. went to their graves free men.

That's the way it was in America and that's the way it still is in much of America today.

L to R: Roy Bryant, Caroline Bryant, Juanita Milam, J. W. Milam. Acquittal. America.

The confession that appeared in Look Magazine in 1956:

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