Sixty-five years ago on Aug. 28, 14-year-old Emmett Till, while visiting his Mississippi relatives, was kidnapped, tortured, mutilated, murdered and dumped into the Tallahatchie River by white men after a complaint that the Black youngster had whistled in the proximity of a white woman. Till, who stuttered, had been taught by his mother to whistle softly before pronouncing certain problematic words, as a technique to alleviate his stutter.
A witness to his murder heard the boy cry, “Mama, Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!”
Till’s body was dredged from the river, bloated and disfigured. His mother insisted he be placed in an open casket so everyone could see what had been done to him. Tried before an all-white, all-male jury, the defendants were acquitted after their lawyers told the jury that their “forefathers would turn over in their graves” if they were to convict. The jury took all of 67 minutes to acquit. One member said afterward, “We wouldn’t have taken so long if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.” Less than a year after the acquittal, the defendants told Look magazine that, of course, they had killed Till. “Well, what else could we do?” one of them said. “I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, (N-word) are gonna stay in their place. (N-word) ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government.”
The same week that Americans marked the grim anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, that segment of America that has not lost its sense of decency shuddered at the news that yet another Black countryman was brutalized by a white American — a law enforcement officer, no less — without apparent regard for human life. Millions have seen the video of a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shooting 29-year-old Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man walking away from the police, not once, not twice but seven times in the back, pulverizing his internal organs and leaving him paralyzed. “Daddy, why’d they shoot me so many times?” Blake asked his father from his hospital bed. “I don’t want to be a burden on anybody,” he told his mother. Like “I can’t breathe,” the words uttered by George Floyd 20 times as he begged for his life while police officers suffocated him on a Minneapolis street in May, Blake’s words all but make audible those of Emmett Till three generations ago: “Lord, have mercy.”
For those of us who are white, the idea that America is suffused with racism has long been difficult to swallow. It is not the way we see ourselves, not the way we wish to see ourselves or the country we love. The charge that our cherished nation is afflicted with a national illness puts us in a defensive crouch.
But the unending litany of unjustified, unjustifiable violence by white police officers against Blacks has backed us into a corner, and it is time to admit it: We are not dealing with racist “incidents,” or even lots of incidents, but rather a condition. And we cannot pretend that the recurring footage we see on national television is anything but the tip of the iceberg.
It simply is not believable that what happened to Blake, Floyd and the dreadful list of notable others whose victimization has received national attention is not happening in cities and towns all across America, where videographers are absent and there is no media to draw attention.
The viciousness and the hatred that have, since 2016, grown too obvious to ignore predate Donald Trump’s election. But a president with an atom-sized particle of either wisdom or love of country would search for ways of remedying our national disease rather than spreading it. This president has neither. So it will just have to be up to us to figure out how to do the job, and to start doing it as quickly as possible.