Tag Archives: Emmett Till

The history of our days

On this day in 1955, a fourteen year old African American boy named Emmett Till from Chicago, Illinois was killed in Money, Mississippi.  I know his story by heart; it was the first one I learned on domestic terrorism and mob lynching when I began my personal study of African American history.   He went to visit relatives, a kind of summer vacation and was accused of whistling at a socially colored white woman.  Sexual harassment, rape, whistling at a so- called white woman are all the same for these domestic terrorists and all common themes in the murder of African American men.

Emmett’s death spoke to the historical and hysterical fear of cross- cultural relationships despite the common knowledge of the rape of African and later African American women by their European American oppressors, the “tainting of the pure white race” and the myth of inherent inferiority for those socially colored black.  The two were never to meet, mingle or mix.  Death was not considered a high price but the necessary cost of admission to race and its capitalist superiority complex.  It was deemed necessary to maintain these pseudo- distinctions and color- coded divisions.

Emmett– not his murderers– had crossed the line for whistling at her.

It was a common charge, included with those recorded by the Equal Justice Initiative like “not allowing a (socially colored) white person to beat him up” as was the case of Jim Eastman in Brunswick, Tennessee in 1887, for “refusing to abandon their land to (socially colored) white people” William Stephens and Jefferson Cole are lynched in Delta County, Texas in 1895, “for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Haynes Turner, Mary Turner was lynched with her unborn child at Folson Bridge at the Brooklyn- Lowndes County line in Georgia in 1918.”  Thousands of lynchings, perhaps Emmett’s murderers didn’t think that his would matter.  But, they were wrong.  Emmett’s heinous death would change the trajectory of a nation.

Persons said his name and realized that their lives mattered, that if persons could beat and lynch and shoot and tie a child’s body to a cotton gin fan and throw him into the river and not be found guilty of a crime against our shared humanity, then justice was not blind but looking the other way.  It inspired the Civil Rights Movement and a man named Martin Luther King, Jr., who on this same day in 1963 received the Nobel Peace Prize.  He had a dream: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  But the nightmare of race continues and his children aren’t getting any younger.

Race and racialized identities continue to inspire the lynching of African American men, women and children in police- states for suspected crimes like selling cigarettes for which Eric Garner was choked to death, for listening to loud music as was the case for Jordan Davis or simply walking back to his father’s home from a convenience store like Trayvon Martin.  From chants of “I am somebody” to “Black Lives Matter,” we are living the history of our days.  We are stuck in the past, never to see a brighter day or the light at the end of our tunnel vision because we human beings refuse to stick together.

It should have never happened to Emmett Till but when it did, it should have never happened again.  The struggle to share our humanity continues.  What will you do to change the present on this day?

When you can’t look away

Image result for mamie till over emmett till's casketA recent Washington Post article titled “Why white people need to see the searing new African American Museum” featured the image of Mamie Till leaning over her fourteen year old son, Emmett Till’s casket.  After he was kidnapped, tortured and brutally murdered during a visit with relatives who lived in the South, Till decided to have an open casket funeral.  She said, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”

But, how many of these images and now videos have we already seen?  We have hash tags now.  And yet, we cannot look away.  We cannot look away because we need to see that words have consequences.  We cannot look away because we need to see what our words can do.  They are not just nasty words, politically incorrect words, inappropriate words, words not to be used in polite company but they are killing words.  Literal death sentences.

Image result for mamie till over emmett till's casket

They are humanity- denying words for both persons involved.  Killing persons because of the social coloring of their skin or using words that reduce the value of their human life are inexcusable.  It is preying upon and hunting down persons who fit a description, who look like trouble.

A Tulsa police officer witnessing the scene from a helicopter can be heard saying, “That looks like a bad dude” before an unarmed Terence Crutcher was shot and killed.  It should be noted that Mr. Crutcher was not a suspect in any crime but was stopped on the road due to car trouble.  Officer Betty Shelby has since been charged with manslaughter after a review of dash camera footage and her interview.  But, this does not mean that justice will be served since Freddie Gray’s death was ruled a homicide and yet, not a single police officer involved was convicted.

So, the next time you see a racially motivated crime, don’t put your head down or simply shake your head.  And please, don’t look away– because some of us can’t.  We can’t look away because they fit the description of a family member.  We cannot look away when they are our son or daughter, our father or mother, our spouse or friend.

Image result for mamie till over emmett till's casket


We will say more names

A few days ago, I wrote about the death of Mr. Alton Sterling in a police- involved shooting in Baton Rouge.  “I don’t want to say another name” was written from a place of distress and emotional exhaustion.  I just could not take another death, another loss and frankly, another win for the social construct of race.  I never could have imagined that I would revisit this scene again in the same week; though this time, my view was a lot closer.

I am in the car with Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter.  She is recording the death of her fiancé, Mr. Philando Castile and live- streaming it on Facebook Live.  He has been shot multiple times and her first reaction is to pick her phone to record the incident.  This is both telling and troubling.

She knows that her word won’t be enough.  Her eyes don’t matter.  Instead, she will need more eye witnesses, more viewers.  In an interview with Fox 5 in Washington, D.C., Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown professor and well-known public intellectual, compared her to Mamie Till, who decided to have an open casket funeral for her 14- year old son, Emmett Till, who was kidnapped, beaten, lynched, shot and then dumped in the Tallahatchie River in the summer of 1955.

It is as if the scene has been paused; the officer is still holding his gun.  The officer, now identified as Jeronimo Yanez, is agitated.  And it is Ms. Reynolds who is composed and respectful, still addressing the officer as “sir.”  She does not want to be his next victim.

Mr. Castile’s breathing is shallow and she thinks that he has died.  More police arrive and Ms. Reynolds holds the camera and her composure until they put her in the backseat of a police car.  She screams and I scream with her.  The world hears her four year old daughter comfort her, “It’s okay mommy. I’m here with you.”  I have a three year old son.  He would have said this to me too.

Heart- breaking. Heart- destroying.  Gut- wrenching.  Sickening.  Frightening.  Paralyzing.  Angering.  Mobilizing.  Marching.  Standing.  Shouting to the top of my lungs, “I’m here with you!”

In the video, Ms. Reynolds asks for prayers. “Please pray for us.”  No confidence in the police department, the justice system or hope for our shared humanity, Ms. Reynolds believes that it will take divine power.  I agree.  Only God can help us now.

Whether we join hands, put our hands up or our hands in our pockets and look down at the ground because we don’t want to get involved, the outcome is the same.

But, THIS is wrong.  Not “I made a mistake” wrong.  Not “I had no idea” wrong.  Not “let me make it up to you” wrong.  This is historically, factually, presently and always wrong.

Still in shock and while I am processing these two scenes in Louisiana and Minnesota, there is another.  This time, we are in Dallas and it is the police officers who are the target and the victims.  Thirteen people are wounded, including one civilian.  Five police officers are killed by suspected shooter and U.S. military veteran, Micah Johnson.

More names.  Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Brent Thompson, Michael Smith and Patrick Zamarripa.

The fear and hopelessness is spreading.  Officers are told to work in pairs.  There are reports of more ambush- style attacks on police who are called to a scene only to be shot at.  If we do not practice the law fairly, the citizens will attempt to balance the scales.  Lawlessness is inevitable and it seems that we are heading toward a race war.  Dylann Roof  says, “Thank you.”  This is what he wanted.

We will say more names because we do more politicizing and propangandizing than truth- telling, more feigning ignorance than owning our complicity, more deflecting and finger- pointing than hand- holding, more blame- shifting than assigning responsibility, more self- victimization instead of comforting those who mourn, more asking for an explanation instead of seeking an understanding, more looking down at the ground instead of looking into the eyes of another human being, more justifying than apologizing, more denying than accepting, more beating around the bush instead of chopping it down and digging up its roots.

The fruit of race is “a strange fruit.”   Still, we continue to eat it though we know that it is poisonous.  But, the privileges are so sweet and the pain so familiar.  So, we pass the race at our tables as we say more names.



Trayvon Martin: When Clothing Becomes Criminal

heat-hoodies-horiz-ap.jpgTrayvon Martin. I can’t seem to stop thinking about him and neither can millions of people across the United States and around the world.  The President of the United States of America said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin,” the members of the Miami Heat, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund and students from numerous colleges and universities have all posed in hoodies. There have been demonstrations throughout the city of Washington, in Sanford, Florida, New York City and others. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson appeared on “The Ed Show” on MSNBC where he discussed the criminality of socially colored black skin and the training of African American children to be unnecessarily deferential to law enforcement in order to ensure that they are not harmed. He also mentioned the fact that European Americans wear hoodies every morning as they make their way to the gym, adding that the unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was wearing a hoodie and lamented the unjustified and deadly use of force used by George Zimmerman against Trayvon Martin. But, that’s just it. Zimmerman was not a police officer; he was not even a member of the neighborhood watch that he appointed himself captain of.

I’ve never met Trayvon Martin but I know his voice because I listened to the 911 call that captures his screams, crying out for help but silenced after a single gunshot to the chest. Trayvon Martin was a child, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton’s baby. He was doing what my siblings and I have done on countless occasions as children, walk to a corner store to buy candy. He had the right to walk down any street in America and that right was violated. He shouldn’t be dead. He should be brushing his teeth and getting ready for church in the morning.

I suppose that I am angry that no charges have been filed against Mr. Zimmerman and that he is free to walk down the same street that he shot Trayvon Martin on. But, the more I think about it, I believe that the reason why his name will not fade into the recesses of my mind is because of the rationale for the crime: clothing. He looked suspicious. He looked to be on drugs. Is this what the announcer would say of one strutting down the catwalk? “Our next model is wearing a sleek, trendy black hoodie that comes in an array of colors for all seasons. He’s wearing a hoodie, good for everyday wear and it will ensure that he always look like a criminal. If you want it to be assumed that you are a drug addict, then this is the attire for you.” Geraldo Rivera would agree, saying on Fox News that Trayvon Martin made himself a target by wearing the hooded sweatshirt.

But the Ku Klux Klan wears hoods. They hold rallies, public demonstrations and even parades in many of America’s cities. No one is saying that they look suspicious, that they are up to something. No one connects their attire to their criminal past. No, they are free to walk where they choose because it is their right. Do they have more of a right than Trayvon Martin? It doesn’t matter if we agree with their positions. It doesn’t matter if we are offended by their attire. They are free to wear whatever they choose. To suggest that anyone can identify a potential criminal based solely on clothing is ridiculous, dangerous and in the case of Trayvon Martin, deadly. But, I guess it just depends on which persons and what actions we consider criminal.

Battling Race

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” ~Friedrich Neitzsche

Race is a monster. It’s not like the ones that hide under our beds or in our closets. Its features are not ghastly though it has been known to make its victims appear such. Race is not fire breathing though for me at least, it seems to destroy everything that it comes into contact with. Like most monsters, it has never been seen as it is but a figment of our imagination or at least those who have witnessed the appearance of race have never lived to tell it. What do I mean? Well, Emmett Till for example. He saw this monster. The image of the hand of hatred etched on his fourteen year old swollen and beaten body.

His was the first that I learned when reading the scary stories about race. There were others but this one stood out because he was a child. It was enough to keep me awake at night, afraid that I too would be awakened from my sleep, taken from my home and never seen alive again. I spent much of my early years chasing these ghosts. Some wore sheets while others did not. But, there were days when I wanted to pull the bedsheets over my head. I was becoming a monster, my life lurking in the shadows afraid of what these racialized boogie men and women might do to me. I was always on the defensive now, having only heard the stories.

I have read the words of race and looked at its images for years now. While in college, my defense from this monster was Black Nationalism; however, while in seminary, I began to wrestle with its principles. I couldn’t carry Christ’s message coupled with a belief in racial separation from those who were certainly my kindred as God’s children. I am aware that many others have carried both though I would argue unsuccessfully for how can one be a witness of God’s unconditional love and acceptance while harboring the belief in racial supremacy? Black Nationalism had made socially colored white people monsters, devils even.

It had placed evil in an entire population, making our encounters spooky, our lives lived fearfully, reverentially toward race. Race and its black and white supremacies made life’s meaning abysmal. Race was creating a chasm within me, a distance between self- love and neighborly love that was growing wider each day.  I had been looking at race but now it was looking at me, mulling me over, sizing me up, preying on me. Its presence had become monstrous and this view had I kept it, would have swallowed me up.