The train was cold. That’s the first thing I remember about that trip my Mom and I made from Chicago to Dothan when I was about 5.
We were traveling there because Dothan was as close as we could get by train to Marianna, Florida, Mom’s hometown. After we arrived, a family member picked us up for the ride across the state line.
That memory – more than five decades old – was triggered while watching Women of the Movement, a new series on the ABC television network. This season focuses on the horrific lynching of Emmett Till.
As most people likely know, Till was the 14-year-old Chicago boy killed in 1955 for flirting with a white woman – allegedly. There’s still debate about what he actually said – or didn’t say – to Carolyn Bryant, his accuser.
But there’s no debate about what happened to Till. Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped the teen at gunpoint from his great-uncle’s home. They then beat and mutilated him, before shooting him in the head and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.
Bryant and Milam behaved like savages. And their community blessed their criminal behavior with a not guilty verdict.
Perhaps that would have been the end of this story – were it not for Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother. Mrs. Till turned her grief into justice by insisting on an open casket funeral for her child. This allowed the world to see and judge those murderers and their enablers.
That evil is my focus today. Not the murder of Emmett Till per se, but the evil that prompted his murder. Which, by the way, is the same evil that prompts a nation – and even our state – to champion denial about past and present wrongs and their connection to the present.
Folks don’t want to believe that some of their ancestors could be so callous, so inhumane. They don’t want to accept that there were laws, government policies and social mores that enabled and facilitated what was done to Emmett Till and many other Black and Indigenous people.
They want us to believe a fairy-tale about a white-washed America – a white-washed Alabama – where non-whites were treated humanely, even if they were slaves or free people of color. They want us to embrace fantasy they’ve constructed where whiteness has been displayed generously, with the utmost kindness.
Lynchings? Rapes? Land theft? Burning crosses? Convict leasing? Redlining?
No. Of course not.
Individuals like my Uncle Mop, forced to flee their homes for being “uppity”? People killed due to imagined slights like Carl Ray’s father?
Discrimination in hiring? Mass incarceration? The cold-blood murder of unarmed people by police and vigilantes?
What are you talking about? Don’t believe documented history.
Believe us as we block history from being taught to children in the classroom.
Meanwhile, history seems poised to repeat itself. At least eight historically Black colleges and universities received bomb threats last week. The targeted institutions included Howard University in Washington D.C. and Spelman College in Atlanta.
Days ago, Charles R. Drew University, a West Coast HBCU, also received a bomb threat. The Los Angeles Times reported that the threat came from an individual who identified himself as a white neo-Nazi.
“I want to show the Black population what the white man can do, we will take back our land!” the threat said, according to The Times.
The answer to a resurgence in violent bigotry is not ignoring a history of violent bigotry and systemic racism.
The answer is to confront it. Call it by name. Acknowledge its connection to the past. Denounce the past acts, while affirming present efforts to do better.
The answer is to seek truth and reconciliation about what America – what Alabama – was, is and can be. Too bad our governor and Legislature don’t see that their blind denial continues to diminish our state and its possibilities.
Five-year-old me was cold on that train leaving Chicago’s Union Station, the same station that Emmett Till had departed from not even 15 years prior. But I still remember – 50-plus years later – the sweet, white woman who gave my mother a blanket so I could get warm. And nothing has erased her act of kindness from my mind – not even a lifetime of seeing and studying America’s and Alabama’s brutish racial sins.
Love transcends the truth, even as they co-exist.