Fish don’t feel the water. How could they? It surrounds them always. Fish never think, “I’m wet.”
Similarly, in America, the 400 years of racism have made bigotry so pervasive we can miss it, unconsciously accept its premises. Sometimes, we think we’re pushing back against it, when we’re really just using it to propel ourselves forward. Swimming in it.
The ghost of Emmett Till, in the form of a photo, appeared on the front page of the Sun-Times Tuesday. Like all ghosts, it demands a response. A startle, then a closer look.
The smiling, viewable photo, of course, was taken before the 14-year-old Chicagoan was abducted, beaten, shot and dumped in the Tallahatchie River while on a visit to relatives in Mississippi in 1955. Not one of the gruesome images that ran in Jet magazine after his body spent three days in the river before being noticed by boys fishing nearby.
The two men accused of murdering him grinningly walked, the all-white jury waving them on their way.
But the case was reopened by the Justice Department in 2017, after publication of a book claiming the shopkeeper, Carolyn Bryant Donham, who accused Till of doing something unwelcome — whistling, making a lewd comment, squeezing her hand — admitted she had lied. That the boy hadn’t done anything to spark the fury of her husband and his friends.
The FBI probed the author’s records but didn’t find the necessary evidence, so it closed the case.
Abandoning charges disappointed Till’s family. They wanted Donham to admit that her claims were false. That she was sorry.
“I had hoped that we could get an apology,” one said.
Why? Why is it important to believe that Till didn’t do anything objectionable? That he wasn’t a brash Chicago teen visiting his country cousins, ignoring his mother’s advice, being crude and showing off?
Why would that matter?
In July, ESPN’s Wright Thompson wrote an excellent article in The Atlantic, “His Name was Emmett Till.” Thompson visits the barn where Till was killed, talks to the survivors. He presents the provocation not as allegation, but as fact:
A few days later, the boys went to Bryant’s Grocery. That’s where Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman the press described as beautiful.
Simeon and Parker were standing right there when he whistled. They both knew immediately that there would be trouble.
Trouble because the code of the South demanded that such impudence be punished with death. And isn’t our not wanting the provocation to be true giving that logic a kind of credence?
If a white teen did what Till did — was fresh to a small-town store clerk — he would have gotten a rebuke or a slap. At worst, a beating by her angry husband. It is the sex panic fury, and the bedrock belief that Black lives do not matter, that are responsible for what happened. Not the remark.
I’m not blaming Till’s relatives. Purifying the victim is routine. I’ve noticed this over the decades regarding the Holocaust. The Jewish population of Europe — good people, bad people, old, young, cultured or crooks, professors and prostitutes — are transformed into Anne Frank clones, this flock of innocents led to the slaughter. It is a second denial of their humanity. Part of being human, of being a person, is being flawed, being free to make mistakes. That is everybody’s right, and shouldn’t be an exclusively white privilege.
It’s good the Justice Department came to the conclusion it did. The evidence didn’t point to any other. Besides, the only way to make the Till case worse now would be to drape over it the canard of justice being finally done. It’s far too late. Justice delayed is justice denied.
At the September 1955 trial, one of the arguments the defense put up was that the body pulled out of the river was not Till’s. (It was, as DNA evidence would later prove.) That kind of bald denial has become the go-to American reaction to racism: It didn’t happen then, doesn’t happen now, and any attention to it is your problem, you being a racist, because otherwise there are no racists here.
We shouldn’t let even a little of that denialism sink in. If Till whistled, it was still his Black skin that got him killed. That could still get him killed today.