Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Places of Emmett Till, Remembered

You may think you know enough about the murder of Emmett Till (I thought I did), but you should read this new article from The Atlantic by Wright Thompson.

It focuses largely on the barn where Till was tortured before he was shot and then thrown in a river, and why we know that is the case. I didn't know any of that.

It's also about the way white Mississippians at the time worked to distance themselves from the killers, while also allowing them to go free. That part sounds just like the way cops and their unions (and other cop apologists) talk about "bad apples" these days. Later, over the years, white Mississippians managed to mostly forget it ever happened.

From this article, I learned that Till was partly a convenient scapegoat for white "economic anxiety." He visited that summer just after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and a second decision told Mississippi it had to desegregate its public schools. It was at a time of drought, and when cotton prices were flat. Banks called their loans. There had been several years before this without a lynching in the state, but two others had been carried out in the two months before Till arrived.

From this article, I learned that every Black person who testified in the original trial moved out of Mississippi immediately afterward because they knew they would never be safe if they stayed there.

From this article, I learned that a white dentist now owns the barn where Till was killed. The dentist is about my age, I think, and grew up in the area. He never knew much about Till's murder and didn't know the barn's history when he bought it and built a house next to it. He feels a deep attachment to the area and is glad he has stayed there to raise his family. But I couldn't help noticing this sentence: "His family arrived here by way of a New Deal program two generations ago." We all know (or should know) that that New Deal program probably prohibited Black participants, or at least was very biased against them, so it was a stepping stone for white men that has led to this dentist's success and ability to own this land with its swimming pool next to the barn where Emmett Till was murdered.

I did know that a sign commemorating Till's murder was constantly shot up and defaced, but I didn't know how bad it was:

Fourteen years ago, Tallahatchie County issued a formal apology for the acquittal of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam. The state installed a green historical marker outside the courthouse.... There was [also] a marker at the Delta Inn, the hotel where jurors were sequestered and where, during the trial, a cross was burned just in case any of the jurors didn’t understand what their neighbors expected of them. That marker was taken down one night by vandals and has not been replaced. A sign was placed along the Tallahatchie River, where Till’s body was found, but someone threw it in the water. A replacement collected more than 100 bullet holes until, made illegible by the violence, it came down and was given to the Smithsonian. A third sign got shot a month after it went up. Three Ole Miss students posed before the sign with guns, and one posted the photo to Instagram. The current sign is bulletproof.

Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." That is clearly the case here, but it's a matter of which parts of the past are grieved, and which parts lionized or deplored.

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