THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL

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emmett tillThe story of the lynching in 1955 of Emmett Till is both the easiest and the hardest to tell. Easy because so much has been written about it. Hard because it is so absolutely incomprehensible, so tragic, and so heart-breaking. The following comes mainly from two documentaries and Death of Innocence by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, though you cannot read a book about lynching, racism or racial violence without coming upon Emmett’s story.

Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was lynched in Money, Mississippi. He did not grow up in the South. He was raised in Argo, a black community outside Chicago where everyone knew him; indeed everyone was pretty much related to him. Though he suffered from polio as a child, he was well taken care of and survived to grow into a confident young man. Perhaps he had more responsibilities than a lot of children; he helped his single mother do the grocery shopping, cook, clean their Chicago apartment. His mother, Mamie Bradley at the time, was self-admittedly somewhat of a child herself. Her authoritarian mother had dominated her life, and Mamie had grown used to turning to her for most things. This would change in August 1955

Mamie’s first husband, Louis Till, was killed in World War II, not in action, but by the military; more about this later. She divorced her second husband, with whom she lived in Detroit while Emmett stayed behind with his grandmother. She became more independent after that, moving into Chicago proper and securing a responsible government job, but she also began to rely on Emmett’s help more and more.

When the question of Emmett going to visit his great-uncle Mose Wright in MIssissippi came up, Mamie was fearful. She made sure to caution Emmett about what life was still like in the South, where blacks were expected to move off the sidewalk if a white person was advancing toward them, to say “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” and never to contradict or touch a white person, never even to look a white person in the eyes. As a parting present, she gave Emmett a ring of his father’s.

Emmett and a cousin traveled by train to their great-uncle’s cabin. Mose was a sharecropper and also known as “Preacher.” His cabin was isolated. Emmett, by all accounts, started the summer visit with all the anticipation of fun and adventure that 14-year-old boys have. He helped in the cotton fields, he went swimming and fishing, he got into scrapes when his cousins and he took Mose’s car to ride around.

One Wednesday evening, the boys took the car to go to the Bryant store, the only place for miles around where you could get candy or soda. The owner, Roy Bryant, was out of town and his young wife Carolyn was minding the store. There are different accounts of what happened next. In some way, Emmett offended Mrs. Bryant, either by touching her hand when he gave her his money (he should have just put it on the counter) or by intentionally whistling at her or even perhaps by whistling unintentionally (the polio had left him with a stutter and his mother had taught him to whistle before he spoke as a way of relaxing his mouth muscles).

Mrs. Bryant went out to her car and got a gun. The boys skedaddled. They did not tell their uncle what had happened, and Mrs. Bryant did not tell her husband until a few days later because the incident had somehow become public knowledge.

That Saturday evening Bryant and his cousin, JW Milam, went to Mose’s cabin. He testified that they knocked on the door in the middle of the night shouting for the “boy from Chicago” to come out. When he turned on the porch light, he saw guns in their hands. He also saw a third person in the shadows. They entered the cabin and found Emmett in bed and told him to get up and come with them. They took him out to their truck, from which Uncle Mose heard a woman’s voice say, “That’s him.” They put him in the truck and no one ever saw Emmett alive again.

Several days later his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, a cotton gin fan secured by barbed wire around his neck and his face unrecognizable. Though Sheriff HC Strider later testified that there was no way to even tell whether this was a white body or a black body, he immediately called the black funeral director. No autopsy was performed. The body was placed in a sealed casket and shipped to Chicago. The seal of the state of Mississippi said that the casket was not to be opened.
Against the advice and fears of the funeral home in Chicago, Mamie insisted that the casket be opened. And then she spent a horrifying time looking over every inch of Emmett’s naked body. Here’s what she saw: Emmett’s tongue was lolling outside his mouth as if it had been partially cut. One of Emmett’s eyes was missing and the other was lying on his cheek. Emmett’s nose and the top of his head had been cleaved. There was a bullet wound behind his ear. And his father’s ring was on his finger.

Somehow, Mamie Bradley found the strength to demand that Emmett be placed in a coffin with a glass lid so that the world could see what had happened to him. And the world did see. Pictures of his battered body were taken. Thousands of people filed by his coffin before the burial. The story was picked up around the world. Surely justice would be done.

After a travesty of a trial, Bryan and Milam were acquitted. Mose and Willie Reed and others who testified for the prosecution had to leave their homes and move north. A smear campaign directed at Emmett’s family came out, including the fact that Louis Till had been executed by his own side in the war. With no foundation, it was written in newspapers that his offense had been rape. Former fellow soldiers contacted Mamie and told her that Louis had been executed on a trumped-up charge, another lynching.

Not even a year after the trial, journalist William Howard Huie interviewed Milam and Bryant and extracted their confession to the lynching, though they could not now be prosecuted. Indeed, they seemed eager to confess publicly, possibly because the way they told it made 14-year-old Emmett seem like a sexual predator. The confession was published in Life magazine. Milam and Bryant claimed that Emmett had invited Carolyn Bryant to have sex, telling her that he had “had” plenty of white women in Chicago. Their intention, Bryant and Milam said, had been simply to scare him, but the more they beat him, the more defiant he became.

No one will ever know for sure what Emmett’s perceived provocation was. It doesn’t really matter. What happened to him is beyond justification. Though two men who worked to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, the Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith, had been murdered not long before Emmett’s visit, it was his death that brought the eyes of the world to bear on racial violence in the United States. Emmett has passed into the collective conscience of all those who abhor and fight against the evil of racism, and even people who don’t know his story know his name. One would have thought that this could never happen to a child again, until in the next century Trayvon Martin happened to be walking home to his father’s condo while George Zimmerman was on the prowl.

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Message Given at Christ Episcopal-Trinity Lutheran Church on Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath, 3/16/14

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“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my God and my Redeemer.”

Every year, as soon as a new flu virus is identified, a vaccine is produced within weeks, if not days. There are people who probably work 24/7 to accomplish this, and it is praiseworthy that this is so and that public and private concerns work together so efficiently. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and no one wants to see another world-wide epidemic such as that of Spanish flu in 1918.

Yet another epidemic has been spreading for years  that is killing our children at the rate of almost 3,000 a year, and neither our politicians, our public health institutions, nor our citizenry has done anything significant to stop it.

Churches of all denominations around the country are marking today as Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. The National Episcopal Church has held events since Friday in Washington; our own Bishop Doug Fisher and Jack McKelvey are members of Bishops Against Gun Violence.

When asked to speak to you on this subject, the only appropriate Scripture I could think of was, “Jesus wept.”

In one year on average, more than 18,000 American children & teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, accidents, or by police intervention. Eighteen thousand!

Every day our children are put in harm’s way just by going to school or the playground; by sitting on the front stoop on a summer evening, killed in a drive-by shooting gone awry; by playing with their parents’ guns and accidentally killing a sibling or themselves; by playing with rifles actually made for children; by having easy access to a gun and believing that the future holds nothing for them.

Is it worse to be a parent of a child who is killed by a gunshot, or to be the parent of a child who has pulled the trigger? What if you were both?

Jesus wept.

As Christians, when confronted with any situation we cannot reason out for ourselves, we are called to ask, “What is the will of God in this?” Or one may put it, “What would Jesus do?” We know from the Ten Commandments that God does not want us to kill one another. We know from John 10:10 that Jesus came to give us life, and life abundantly. We know from Romans 12:9 that in order to practice love, we must hate evil. We cannot just avoid evil; we must take a stand against evil.

The word “evil” has several definitions. That which is morally reprehensible. That which offends. Cosmic evil. And that which brings sorrow, distress or calamity. It is in this last sense that I speak about the evil of gun violence. What stand are we taking against it? Luke 11:13 says, “Even you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children.” What gifts are we giving to children when we allow gun violence to run rampant in our country? How many children will never have the gift of growing up as a child of God, will never experience the fullness of a life well lived, will never give to the world his or her particular talents? How many future Martin Luther Kings or Gandhis or Jonas Salks or Mark Twains or Eleanor Roosevelts or Elizabeth Warrens never realize their potential because of gun violence How many people like you and me, simple laborers in the Vineyard, never know the joy of community and working together for the common good because of gun violence?

Peter’s first letter, 2:16, says “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” Is it not the issue of our freedom as US citizens that is one of the issues that those who work against rational gun laws use frequently to justify their beliefs? Yet God tells us we should not use our freedom to perpetuate evil.

After the Newtown shootings, Episcopal priest Gary Commins chose to preach about gun violence on December 30, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. He compared our society and all the politicians and the NRA members who resist rational gun laws and all the people who abet gun violence by doing nothing, to little Herods. “The media always wants to know the mental state of the murderer,” he said. “But the more pertinent question is: what is our mental state? Why do we, as a nation, continue to be accomplices in the murders of children? Do we suffer from a collective hallucination? Or are we a nation of Herods? Do we prefer to cling to money, power and guns instead of making our children safe?”

While we are quick to point out violence in other cultures, we allow violence to flourish in our own. 3,000 people died on 9/11, a horrible, horrible tragedy, and we went to war because of it. Yet every year 31,537 people die in the United States in gun violence. Where is our outrage? Who has declared war on gun violence? Have we?

Again, from Gary Commins’ sermon: “….”but where is God? We yearn for a God who will defeat our enemies and keep us safe. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said he could pray for legions of angels to protect him, but he doesn’t. We want a God like that, a God who will always protect us. We want a mighty God we can blame, but we can’t blame God for the society we have made. . . The question is not: God, why have you forsaken us? It’s: why have we forsaken you.

“To me God is in the words of Wendell Berry. Before the US invaded Iraq, Berry asked: how many children do I want to have killed so that I can maintain my freedom? How many children should die so that I can maintain my comforts and my lifestyle? None. Zero. None. Those are the questions we need to ask: how many children should die so that someone can own a gun? How many children should die so that corporations can make billions of dollars. How many children should die so that politicians can retain power another two or four or six years? To the Herods of this world, money and power and comfort take priority over the lives of children.”

The National Episcopal Church as well as other mainline churches and the Brady Campaign are asking that three actions be taken:

  1. Ban all assault weapons. The assault weapons ban that elapsed in 2004 must be reinstated.
  2. Require universal background checks.
  3. Make gun trafficking a federal crime.

Let us all take time today to pray about how we can take a stand against this epidemic. We can, individually or as a church, join the Brady Campaign or Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. We can put up a sign outside our church saying that no more children should die from gun violence. We can use a coffee hour once a month to write our legislators and pressure politicians in states that refuse to restrict gun sales. We can go to Washington and bear witness in front of the Capitol. We can go online and find out about boycotts of companies that support the NRA’s intransigence. Individually and as a church community there is so much we can do, if we have the will to do it.

Let us not be the ones who have forsaken God by failing to protect the lives of His, and our, children. Let us truly be Christians, Christ followers, and help Jesus in the work of bringing life, and life abundantly, to all God’s children.

Amen.

The Moral Universe – An Interlude

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The daily paper here has picked up Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson’s column, and I’m very glad of it. Mr. Robinson weighed in on the Jason Davis murder, ending with the thought that when Michael Dunn said the group Davis was with must have had police records because they were “bad,” what he really meant was that they were “young, black and male.”

Last week, Mr. Robinson wrote about “12 Years a Slave,” a film that he hopes will open up an honest confrontation about the United States’ original sin: slavery.

The column touched me in several ways as well as inspiring a personal epiphany. When I decided to address American racism in a blog, I set myself a deadline by which to launch it, March 4. I thought I picked that date just because it would be easy for me to remember; March 4 was Ash Wednesday.

In the Episcopal Church, and I assume in other Christian denominations, Ash Wednesday is the introduction to the penitential season of Lent. Growing up Catholic, I assumed this season was only about personal penitence; I was forever being told that I was sinful, and I probably wore out some of the priests with my confessions. In fact, I came to believe that I was guilty for just about everything bad that ever happened.

The Great Litany in the Book of Common Prayer addresses some wrongs that I personally have not been guilty of, others that I have. I used to want to mumble over some of them because I didn’t think they applied to me. It took me many years of hard work in faith-building to see that I was praying and atoning not just as an individual for my own sins and my own inability to resist temptation, but for the sins of the community and of the wider world.

So I’m thinking now that perhaps I chose Ash Wednesday subconsciously, because what I hope will happen is that my blog will send out the message that we all in this country have got to begin “honestly confronting,” as Mr. Robinson says, and atoning for the sins of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, denying voting rights, denying housing, denying employment and educational opportunities, racial profiling, and the list could go on.

The first thing that has to happen to confront these issues is that white people like me have to learn about them and witness to them and admit that these horrors and injustices were carried out in our name. Whether they happened 100 years ago or 200 years ago or last year in Florida and Texas, they happened in the name of white people. We have to confront also the unquestioned privileges that being white has brought us. One hears rants about entitlement programs; being white in the US is the biggest entitlement program there is, and it’s one I do believe has to go.

The Great Litany goes on for several pages. My heart quailed a little when I made the decision to it pray it aloud every night before I go to bed. Here is just one small beseeching:

“From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity, Good Lord, deliver us.”

Amen.

(You can follow Mr. Robinson at this link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/eugene-robinson/2011/02/24/ABPAwVN_page.html)

The Art of Lynching

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Witnessing Lynching, edited by Anne P. Rice, is a compendium of articles and stories written by African-Americans and white abolitionists from long before the Civil War until the 20th century.  It includes writings by both Angelina Grimkes, grandmother and granddaughter. The older Angelina and her sister Sarah are featured in Sue Monk Kidd’s new book, The Invention of Wings.

According to an article reprinted in the book from Crisis magazine, between 1885 and 1916 a total of 2,843 “colored” men were lynched.  Numbers by year were published in the magazine, which was an organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The worst year during that time was 1892, with 155 men known to have been lynched.  Appended to the list was this statement:

“What are we going to do about this record? The civilization of America is at stake. The sincerity of Christianity is challenged.  . .”

Tragically, lynching has continued to the present day in one form or another.  Think James Byrd, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant (about whom the movie “Fruitvale Station was made), Ricky Birdsong, and Abner Louima. As I write, federal investigators are looking into the murder of Alfred Wright of Texas, whose tortured body was found after a four-day search (the local sheriff called the search off in three days) in November. Despite the fact that Mr. Wright’s throat was slit, the sheriff refused to investigate the death as a murder. A congresswoman persuaded Attorney General Eric Holder to open a federal investigation.

You can find a few derivations of the word “lynch” in Wikipedia. There are two that are considered most credible.  A 15th-century mayor of Galway, Ireland, named James Lynch Fitzstephen hanged his son in 1493 for murdering someone visiting from Spain.

An 18th century Virginia planter named Charles Lynch was the head of a court that rounded up British loyalists during the Revolutionary War and jailed them. The court had no proper authority to do so. The  term “lynch law” came to mean assuming judicial power outside the law. The excuse given was wartime necessity, and no doubt it was a precedent pointed to when Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. In our own time, we have Guantanamo Bay.

Lynching began long before the Civil War, but because the institution of slavery was in full force, slaveowners had even less reason to worry about the legality. Slaves were, of course, subject to any treatment by their masters and mistresses up to and including homicide.

After the Civil War, which the South could not admit to losing even though General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, and perhaps because the assassinated Lincoln’s vision of reconstruction was not followed, former slaveholders could not abide the thought of black people gaining any kind of economic or social power. That is when lynching began in earnest, and the Ku Klux Klan reared its satanic head.

Let’s be very clear about what I mean when I say “lynching.” Before I began studying the subject, I assumed it meant hanging someone. I envisioned an illustration for Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” with bodies hanging from trees. That is, of course, horrible in and of itself, but in fact, lynching of African-Americans usually included first torture, then burning alive, then hanging from a tree. There was often a carnival atmosphere surrounding lynchings, with thousands of people cheering the murderer on, including children. Lynchings often took place in very public places, so it was clear that the community not only accepted what was happening, but in fact endorsed it. People would dash toward the fire or the hung body and try to grab a finger or a bone as a souvenir.

The torture might include the severing of genitals, putting eyes out, or even putting corkscrews into the victim’s flesh over and over, as happened to Luther Holbert and his wife in 1904 in Mississippi.

After the murder of Trayvon Martin, white people heard a lot about what’s come to be called “the talk,” or the discussion that parents of black youth have had to hold with their children about the very real probability of their being profiled and pulled over while driving.

In the same way, 19th century Southern black parents kept pictures of lynching victims to show their children so the children would learn how to behave in an obsequious enough manner around while people so they would not to end up hanging from a tree.

The standard excuse for a lynching was that a black man, or boy, had raped a white woman. Because the African-American was looked at as sub-human and bestial, it apparently made sense to white Southern men that this being would lust after their women. White womanhood in the South was raised to a near-Virgin Mary status, and it didn’t take even the excuse of rape to put a black man in the wrong. Just looking a white woman in the eyes was considered a provocation.

While it is obviously true that slaves and ex-slaves and freedmen were not looked upon as equal in the South before, during and after the Civil War, at the bottom of it all the Southern whites had to know exactly how human the blacks were. They lived in very close proximity, after all, and many children knew their black nannies better than they knew their mothers. Would you entrust your child to a wet nurse you thought was no better than an animal? If your whole economic success depended on the work of others, would you entrust that work to lustful beasts? Does it not make much more sense that Southern men, at least, used the black man as a scapegoat for his own lustful desires? There was a code of honor about being a Southern gentleman that was just as rigid as any class divisions in England, and we have only to read books from the Victorian era to see the hypocrisy of such codes.

And we have a lot of evidence of those lustful desires of Southern white men. How many black women and girls were raped by their masters on a regular basis? How many black people today can trace their ancestry to a white slaveowner? Instead of the Africans defiling the white gene pool, it was the other way around.

Then there is the little matter of how many white women sought out sexual relations with black men but had to cry rape when caught.

Rape was, most of the time, the lie that covered the real reasons for lynching. Those reasons cover a range from trying to enact the right to vote, to protecting one’s own property, to drawing business away from a white-owned business. And while in a way, one could say these were economic, not racial, reasons, the same thing did not happen to white people who voted, protected their property, or opened competitive stores.

The Moral Universe – By Cynthia Pease

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By Cynthia PeaseI wept with joy the night of November 4, 2008, when Jon Stewart announced that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States.

Stewart himself had tears in his eyes. I called my sister and she too was crying. Together we celebrated the vision of an African-American holding the highest office in the country. The United States, we thought, had begun to redeem itself of the shame of slavery and Jim Crow and lynching and institutionalized racism.

It did not take long, though, for forces of opposition to band together and begin a virulent campaign that, in my opinion, has bordered on treason to unseat the President. At first I thought it was a passing fad that would die a natural death after a while; instead, the Tea Party grew shriller and more vitriolic in its pronouncements, and members now stop at nothing, including outright lies, to smear the President.

During the same time, we’ve seen the murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis for breathing while being black. The James Byrd lynching was not all that long ago. The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in June 2013, and the vote was very obviously based on party lines. With states moving forward to gerrymandering voting districts and in other ways restricting minority voters’ access to the polls, I decided that I had to do more than just gripe about it on Facebook.

We are going backward as a country; the Tea Party has hijacked everything I loved about the United States on 11/4/08 and, like the anchorman on “Network,” I’m mad as hell.

I’ve spent the past two years reading almost exclusively about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and lynching. I see what has happened to President Obama as cultural lynching and what happened to Trayvon and Jordan as physical lynching; denying people the right to vote and putting them through rigors that other people do not have to endure is a form of lynching as well. This blog will address the history of lynching as well as other aspects of racism in an attempt to revitalize the fight against any form of discrimination, any law that restricts full access to the rights of citizenship.

When I pondered an appropriate title for this blog, the statement “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” came up several times in my reading. Martin Luther King Jr. used this aphorism to paraphrase a 19th-century abolitionist, Theodore Parker. Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Then I came across this statement in Christopher Waldrep’s book, Racial Violence on Trial: “For decades white southerners argued for states’ rights, insisting that neighborhoods and local communities had a right to punish malefactors free of supervision by the wider society. “Such powerfully entrenched localism has long hobbled reformers, who base their appeals on universal, moral values.”(Page 104)

And there was my title. I do believe that the Tea Party as a political organization opposes President Obama and voting rights for reasons that are peculiar to their own special interests. I do not believe they can really be concerned about what is best for this country as a whole and indeed the wider world. They are holding the best that the US can be hostage to narrow ideologies that go against the grain of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Why would a white woman in her 60s in Massachusetts be so concerned as to start writing a blog about lynching and civil rights? As a newspaper columnist on Cape Cod, I wrote extensively about social justice issues, such as apartheid, homophobia and equal opportunities for youth of all backgrounds. I attended many diversity trainings. While knowing that I have been as infected by institutional racism as much as any white person, I have spent many years working on rooting it out of myself. By my faith and all that I profess, I do believe that I have a responsibility to do what I can to ensure that the horrors of the past do not happen again.

An important note: In all that I will be writing, I do not intend to portray the African-Americans of today as victims who need me to fight their battles for them. I am fighting for the country I so loved that night in 2008, for the redemption of wrongs sometimes too horrible to contemplate, and for the most profound belief I hold: that we are all children of God and therefore all brothers and sisters. I cannot enjoy, and do not want, any privilege that any of my brothers and sisters does not have.