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raceAhead: Fresh Justice for Emmett Till?

July 12, 2018, 7:59 PM UTC
Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed
Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed. Bettmann Archive
Bettmann Archive

When I think about Emmett Till, which I do fairly often, I get tangled up in one little-known fact. Whenever his asthma flared up, as it did when he was nervous, his mother taught him to whistle, to calm himself so he could breathe again.

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in August 1955, a crime that remains one the most horrific single examples of racial violence in the Jim Crow South.

His transgression? Speaking to, making an impertinent gesture toward, or perhaps “wolf whistling” at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, who owned a grocery store with her husband, Roy.

We may be about to find out exactly what happened.

The Department of Justice is finally set to re-open its inquiry into the matter based on the “discovery of new information,” though it is unclear what that is or if new charges will be filed.

I suspect the move may be based, in part, on new information unearthed in an excellent 2017 book written by academic and researcher Timothy B. Tyson. In The Blood of Emmett Till, Tyson painted a vivid picture of life in the brutal post-Civil War South, some details of which were provided Carolyn Bryant herself, in the only interview she’s ever given.

Carolyn Bryant, now Donham, had excellent recall of the troubled history of race relations in Mississippi, but now admits her claims were largely false, which challenges her earlier testimony at the pointless trial that acquitted her husband and his half-brother for Till’s murder.

“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Donham told Tyson.

While compelling, it’s hard to look at this decision from the Department of Justice as anything more than a sleight-of-hand gesture, set to become another chapter in the long history of performative justice that ultimately signifies nothing. When will Tamir Rice get his day in court? Trayvon? The list is long.

Sadly, Till’s mother, the indefatigable Mamie Till Mobley, is no longer alive to experience this justice delayed.

She certainly did her part to link that moment to a movement; Mobley held an open casket funeral in her home city of Chicago to show the world her son’s bloated, beaten and unrecognizable body. Jet magazine, one of the most prominent black-owned publications of the day, published the photos of his badly disfigured remains, causing media outlets around the world to pick up the story.

And everyone who might ultimately be held accountable, with the exception of Donham, is also dead.

Yet, today — and I say this measuredly – there are some encouraging signs that the policing of black behavior by aggrieved white bystanders is becoming increasingly unacceptable and is now coupled with a social cost.

Consider the now growing list of self-appointed white behavior monitors who have attempted to call out black people for #LivingWhileBlack. Not every attempt has been successful.

A white manager of a Memphis apartment complex was fired after calling the police on a black resident who wore socks in the pool. A North Carolina man was fired from his day job after a video of him harassing a black woman as she attempted to enter their community pool went viral. A woman who called the police on an 8-year-old black girl who was selling water on a San Francisco sidewalk was forced to step down from her role as CEO of a cannabis firm, after a viral video of her filmed by the girl’s cousin earned her the Twitter moniker #PermitPatty.

And yesterday, Papa John’s Pizza founder John Schnatter resigned from both the University of Louisville Board of Trustees and as chairman of the Papa John’s board.

In a story leaked to Forbes, Schnatter used the n-word in a recent business meeting with a consultant. The session was an attempt to craft an image rehabilitation strategy after Schnatter came under fire last year for publicly complaining that the NFL player’s protest during the national anthem was cutting into pizza sales.

He didn’t get the strategy he was expecting.

So maybe a review of the Emmett Till case through fresh eyes may not bring fresh justice – though I hope it does. But it just might help us remember who we’ve always been, but more to the point, who we can become: A country that embraces a new set of social norms which prevents white folks who are unable to respect the lives of people of color from doing more harm.

If you’re a person who can’t meet that low bar, you pay a price.

I think about all of these things when I think about Emmett Till, particularly now that the still unaccountable Carolyn Bryant Donham has admitted that he never whistled at her. He only whistled later, she said, as he and his playmates were fleeing the scene, after realizing that she was reaching for her husband’s pistol to shoot at them.

Till’s friend, Simeon Crawford, corroborates her story. “To this day, I don’t know what possessed Emmett to do that,” he told Tyson as he tried to recreate the timeline of events. “We didn’t put him up to it…He did it on his own and we had no idea why.”

I think he was just trying to breathe.

As are so many of us. After his home was vandalized with a racial slur last year, a contemplative LeBron James mentioned Emmett Till in a subsequent press conference. He’d been thinking about him a lot. “I think back to Emmett Till’s mom, actually,” said the NBA star. “The reason that she had an open casket is because she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as a hate crime and being black in America.”

There is no exempting out of racism, he said. “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is—it’s tough.”

On Point

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City of Milwaukee agrees to pay $3.4 million over police procedures targeting residents of color
The city is settling a lawsuit which alleged that the police used “stop-and-frisk” style policing methods to target black and Latinx people. The suit was brought by the ACLU Wisconsin on behalf of six people who claim they’d been stopped multiple times; in their investigation, the ACLU found that from 2010-2017, Milwaukee police officers made more than 350,000 traffic and pedestrian stops for which there is no cause cited. In Milwaukee, black people are six times as likely to be stopped by a police officer than a white person. Milwaukee admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement, which requires the police to actually document every stop and puts in place new training and monitoring protocols.
Chicago Tribune

SNAP recipients are set to lose access to farmer’s markets
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Washington Post

An architect is opening up the profession to low-income girls of color in Detroit
Tiffany Brown is one of only 423 licensed black women architects out of 111,000 total in the U.S. Occasionally, on a job site, she’s mistaken for custodial help. She started a program last year called 400 Forward, a program to introduce architecture to young girls in under-resourced schools in her native Detroit, by offering free art and architecture summer camps. The program is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and is named for the 400th black woman to become a licensed architect, in August 2017. Click through for an inspiring profile and her vision for more inclusive design. "In Detroit, people are supposed to stand by while developers come in and buy the land," she says. "The people made the city what it is, but they feel like they don't belong anymore." 

The Woke Leader

Trying to erase Emmett Till
Speaking of Emmett Till, his markers and memorials are often targeted for vandalism. But this one, defaced last summer, was nearly erased entirely. The Till sign outside the former Bryant grocery was the first erected on the Mississippi Freedom Trail in 2011. It wasn’t just a stray bullet or a kick from a passing car, says Davis Houck, a member of the Emmett Till Memory Project. Words and images were deliberately scratched off. “This time, it’s more sinister because it’s carefully thought out. It’s not a defacing, but an erasing.”
Clarion Ledger

To stem the rise in hate crimes large and small, we must speak up
The dramatic increase of hate crimes can be directly traced to the rise of President Trump, says Jamelle Bouie, writing as Slate’s chief political correspondent. This dynamic is not new. “Throughout American history, the ascendance of political racism—the use of explicit prejudice to energize voters and win elections, often as a backlash to the social and economic advancement of black Americans and other nonwhite groups—has brought corresponding waves of racial violence,” he says. He walks through a helpful list of how white resentment has been “weaponized” throughout the years, noting it's always tied to a political climate that normalizes racism and defines the country in narrowly ethnic terms.“[W]e tolerate the public expression of racism at our own peril. Embedded in racism is an eliminationist impulse that grows out of the explicit call for exclusion. In the right environment, under the right conditions, the call to remove ‘others’ can become a drive to destroy them.”

Racism is literally making people sick
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I talked to a retired FBI agent who said that one of the things they were looking at were terrorist cells overseas who had figured out how to game our system. And it appeared they would have young women, who became pregnant, would get them into the United States to have a baby… And then they would turn back where they could be raised and coddled as future terrorists.
Rep. Louie Gohmert