In School I Learned the Story of Emmett Till, But Never the Story of How Many Still Try to Destroy Him

28 Jul

Emmett Till(Image by Trending Topics 2019 used under CC 2.0 via)

 

This week the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered a photo of three fraternity brothers posing with guns next to bullet holes in a sign commemorating the spot on the Tallahatchie River where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955 after he was tortured and murdered. One of the fraternity brothers posted the photo on his Instagram account, where it garnered hundreds of likes before it was drawn into the national spotlight. The fraternity has since expelled the men in the image.

Like many Americans my age, I first learned about Emmett Till in school when I was 15-years-old as part of a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month. I remember the eruption of “WHOA!” among my classmates when we first saw the image of Till’s battered face in the documentary Eyes on the Prize. We learned that Till’s mother insisted on an open casket to show the public what the murderers had done to her son for whistling at a white woman. We learned that this moment helped launch the Civil Rights Movement onto the national scene. And then we went about our day. As with most history lessons, we filed the tragedy as “in the past” and all but said, “Isn’t it good that  this doesn’t happen anymore?”

The memorial sign to Emmett Till would not be erected for another 10 years. I hope students today learn in their Civil Rights lessons that it has been repeatedly riddled with bullet holes ever since. My classmates and I didn’t learn in school where the opponents of the Civil Rights Movement ended up – not only the politicians and the Klansmen, but the white students in the South and the North who threatened their first black classmates. We watched the film version of To Kill A Mocking Bird with its fictional schoolgirl protagonist shaming a lynch mob into backing down simply by showing up at the last minute with her innocent face. We did not learn about the very real photographs of families smiling with their children next to lynched corpses that were turned into postcards and distributed as souvenirs at the time. When it came to such horrors, we learned that there were Bad Guys but there was the silent assumption that they all died off or had a change of heart because it was In the Past.

And it all had nothing to do with America’s Glorious Past. The way we learned it, the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements both cropped up randomly for some reason in the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries. We didn’t learn that the Supreme Court slowly began overturning racist laws at the same time that more and more atrocities of the Holocaust were coming to light, making overt racism less and less widely accepted. We didn’t learn that slavery was such a contentious issue among our Founding Fathers that it had to be jettisoned to the state-level lest it break up the United States before they could even form a country.

Since the very beginning of the United States, talking about racism has remained a quick and easy way to divide our citizenry. Our only hope of solving this gargantuan problem is not to merely condemn and expel individuals, but to fully admit and understand the scope – how far back it goes and how widespread it still is. That’s how you start to solve any serious problem really.

 

 

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