Wednesday, December 8, 2021

It doesn’t matter if Till whistled

     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?

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  1. I had just turned eight that summer. I remember the headlines in the Daily News, and seeing his name and smiling face. But I don't remember reading any of the accompanying stories. The headlines said he had been killed, at fourteen, because of a "wolf whistle." I was old enough to know what that was, but not yet old enough to understand why a black teen-ager would be killed for doing it, or to be cognizant of the racism and bigotry in the Deep South, and elsewhere.

    I was a suburban child in 1955, so I assumed he had been killed in Chicago. By other teens, in a gang fight over a girl. Even in the mid-Fifties, murders of (and by) juvenile males were not unknown in some city neighborhoods. But when I asked my parents why this killing was such becoming an especially big deal, they changed the subject, and wouldn’t discuss it. I finally learned all the horrible details, but not until years later.


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