When Mazie Moore saw that picture in Jet Magazine in 1955, it terrified the Franklin County mother. Mamas across the South, black mamas, were hearing about the photo. They took it as a warning to protect their boys from the wrath of angry white men. She couldn't, though: One of her sons, Charles, would be brutally murdered in 1964, just because he stepped in the path of hateful white men out to terrorize young black men. And no one did anything about it. Her son's life didn't matter.
When Mamie Till Mobley decided to open her boy's casket at his funeral in September 1955 in Chicago, she was angry—that white men had tortured and killed her 14-year-old son for whistling at a white woman storekeeper, for daring to put money into her hand instead of on the counter. Angry that the people of Mississippi did not care enough about the life of young black men, boys even, to seriously try to prosecute their assailants. Angry at a nation and a national media that had turned its back on such atrocities—widespread in the South; the most in Mississippi—for so long.
She decided to shock the world with the image of her young son's body, to make us see ourselves and our neighbors in his mangled face. And she did—by exposing the result of the act that many thought would be the most horrible race crime imaginable.
The history of the struggle for black freedom in America, in the South, in Mississippi, is horrifying and difficult. It is filled with shame, especially for us white folks whose relatives or neighbors might have done things that make our skin crawl when we think about the reality of it. It is hard to talk about it. Many whites whine, "Why can't they just forgive and forget?"—all the while forgetting that few white folks have actually asked for that forgiveness in any form, public or private.
What got white people to the point where they would (a) brutally murder "uppity" black folks who questioned our vaunted "way of life," (b) go along with it or (c) make excuses for it is damn complicated. We still hear people try to justify and romanticize the old "Lost Cause" myths, which were just excuses to justify the worst that human beings can be.
Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp is a self-assured Baton Rouge native who started obsessing over the Emmett Till case after seeing the infamous Jet photo when he was a child. Keith likes to say that "nothing has changed" in Mississippi. One of the posters for his film, which opens in Mississippi this weekend at Northpark, even uses Hurricane Katrina to make the point that the South hasn't changed its treatment of minorities since Emmett Till was executed.
That poster makes me grimace, because I know damn well that much has changed. This newspaper, for one, is a testament to the fact that much has changed since the Mississippi Free Press was boycotted and haranged out of existence in the 1960s. The conviction of Edgar Ray Killen says something about change, albeit that it comes too slowly and too weakly. The last names of some of the people fighting for justice and working for this newspaper show that positive change has come, especially for many younger people who see nothing romantic in rationalizing the "Lost Cause." Facilities are mixed; restaurants are integrated; schools … well … that one helps Keith's argument a bit, I admit.
But regardless of the change that I relish and encourage and celebrate in this paper, I also know that not enough has changed. The evidence of that is in the bigoted attitudes toward young black men in our city and our state—the assumption that they are going to be criminals by default, a belief that leads to actions (or inactions) that I know helps create the very problems that will, in turn, justify the bigotry that helped create the hopelessness that leads to "lost" young people.
Call it blowback, Mississippi style. That is, we as a society are battling many problems we as a society created, or refused to do enough to fix. The truth is—if we will face it—that white Mississippians terrorized young black males for decades. Yes, terrorized. As in beat to death, or nearly beat to death to show what would happen if they stepped out of line. Or flirted with a white woman. Or applied for a job a white person wanted. Or registered to vote.
Sadly, though, white Mississippians never really decided for them(our)selves that black terrorism and economic attacks were immoral. It was forced on us, as it had to be by a federal government that took way too long to get around to it and by people who didn't always do it for the right reasons.
But that means that some people did not let go of their bigotry; they just dressed it up in more palatable, more legal packages that have taken all sorts of forms—from attacks on public schools to voting for unqualified candidates because they promise to run the black thugs out of Dodge City right after the inauguration ends.
The most disturbing manifestation of the blowback is what I call the "thug myth," pushed by folk like morals czar Bill Bennett. Most young black men are born and then raised to be thugs, their "reasoning" goes. The really tragic part is that these neo-bigots—who aren't all white, mind you—are dealing the black male psyche a double blow. First, they were terrorized; now they are presumed to be the terrorizers until proven otherwise.
The point, of course, is not to justify or rationalize crime. That makes about as much sense as rationalizing Jim Crow or the "Lost Cause" of the state's right to continue slavery and white supremacy. What the photo of Emmett Till tells us—and why we must look at it still, 50 years later—is that young black men were the hunted long before they were the feared hunters. Looking will reveal the many human failings along the way to this point, and clues about how to start healing the wounds and ensuring that the cycle of change is completed.
But we won't see if we don't look.