By Ellen McGirt
Updated: February 12, 2018 1:10 PM ET | Originally published: February 15, 2018

As we struggle to cope with yet another mass shooting tragedy, I started to think about the past.

In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley, the grieving mother of 14-year old Emmett Till, made a controversial and fateful decision. Her son had been abducted, tortured, and brutally murdered visiting relatives in Mississippi, and she wanted the world to see what they’d done to her boy.

Jet magazine, one of the most prominent black-owned publications of the day, published the photos of Till’s badly disfigured remains. Then Mobley held an open casket funeral in her home city of Chicago; her son’s beaten and bloated body, completely unrecognizable, was seen by thousands of mourners. Photos of Emmett Till and his mother’s anguish were published in newspapers and magazines around the world, casting a light on racial violence and reigniting a call for change.

“In order to come to grips with this tragedy, she saw Emmett as being crucified on the cross of racial injustice,” says Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture told Smithsonian magazine. “And she felt that in order for his life not to be in vain, that she needed to use that moment to illuminate all of the dark corners of America and help push America toward what we now call the Civil Rights Movement.”

I was thinking of Emmett Till as I watched some of the horrific cell phone videos that were taken by terrified students as they huddled inside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. yesterday.

The issues are different, of course, but the results were not. Gunshots, screaming, bodies, terror, blood. To my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve had access to this kind of imagery inside a mass shooting event. I wondered if the reality of these images, like Till’s real face, would galvanize a conversation about gun violence that is clearly long overdue.

It is now a familiar story: Breaking news, a mass shooting, chaos, police on the scene. This time, it was committed by a former student named Nikolas Cruz. The 19-year-old was known to be problematic. He’d been expelled for behavioral reasons, and it appears that there had been numerous red flags indicating his potential for violence. It also appears that the FBI had been warned about his school shooting threats and had investigated him in the past.

Now, 17 people are dead and 14 more are injured. There have been 18 deadly school shootings in 2018.

Looking back to my column on the Las Vegas shooting, I’m reminded that everything that was true then, is true now: “Difficult conversations are ahead: About guns, violence, the definition of terrorism, why “deadliest mass shooting” modifiers tend to erase communities of color, and the consequences of white male resentment. About politics. About desperation.

We’ll also need to talk about how to talk about these things, a leadership imperative that seems to have been lost, at least on the public stage.”

And the same advice holds today: Be ready to listen, make sure your managers are prepared if painful issues arise during the workday, and most of all, don’t pretend nothing has happened.

“[A] compassionate organization cultivates a sense of empathy for those who are suffering,” she says. “And the first thing is for leaders to be present, talking, listening, and acknowledging that something specific has happened and that some people may have concerns,” Alison Davis-Blake, professor of business and the former dean at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Of course, she was referring to the police shootings of July 2016. I’m recycling advice about leadership in the face of gun violence because this is the way we live now.

All of which got me thinking about Mrs. Till, and the courageous kids who attempted to document their unthinkable reality — in all its horror — during what might have been the final moments of their lives.

Will we be strong enough to bear witness to their pain this time?


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