At my big age of [redacted] having been on Al Gore’s Internet for the past 20 years, you’d think I’d be numb to white maliciousness. There are white people who hate us — why am I still surprised? Yet here I am, shocked once again, that some white boys would go out of their way to express their hatred of Black people so publicly and completely unprovoked.
One week after a photo emerged of white University of Mississippi students posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled sign honoring murdered civil rights icon Emmett Till, campus groups and faculty have denounced the school’s weak response, demanding the administration discipline the students and remove a Confederate statue from university property.
The three students in the photo were suspended by their fraternity, the Ole Miss chapter of Kappa Alpha, an organization with its own racist history. (The fraternity’s website refers to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.”)
But Anne Twitty, an associate professor of history at Ole Miss, said the three students should be expelled.
Do you need a refresher on what happened to Emmett Till?
In 1955, Emmett was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi for the summer. Carolyn Bryant was a 21-year-old white woman who owned a grocery store with her husband. Emmett and his cousins went to the store where Carolyn was tending shop alone while her sister-in-law attended to other duties in the back. What happened in the shop is unclear after all these years but most (reliable, non-fabricated accounts by Carolyn) say one of three things happened:
- Emmett, who went to integrated schools in Chicago, said he had white friends and his cousins dared him to speak to Carolyn.
- Emmett, who was always joking around, whistled at Carolyn to get a laugh out of his cousins, who were terrified at what just happened because a Black boy (Black man, to racists) cannot whistle at a white woman in Mississippi.
- Emmett, who had a stutter, whistled while he was talking to alleviate his stutter, something he had a habit of doing.
Carolyn said 14-year-old Emmett Till grabbed her wrist, asked her for a date, grabbed her around the waist, told her not to be afraid of him, said he’d been with white women before, and asked her if she could take it.
A 14-year-old Black boy. In 1955. To a white woman. Is supposed to have done all that.
In 2008, Carolyn finally admitted on her deathbed that she had been lying about the physical and verbal advances, and she said in an interview that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” (x)
Later that night after Carolyn’s husband Roy and his half-brother JW heard about the incident, they asked around to find out what boy offended his wife. They said they had intended to kidnap Emmett, beat him up to scare him, and then send him on his way. According to Roy and JW, when they were beating him, Emmett called them bastards, said he was just as good as they were, and bragged that he had been with white women before. So they continued to beat and torture him before shooting him in the head and tossing his body in the river. When Emmett’s body was found, his mother insisted on an open-casket for the funeral and the photo of his mutilated body was printed in newspapers and magazines across the country. It was one of the sparks of the Civil Rights Movement.
So we have here an innocent 14-year-old boy who AT MOST whistled at a white woman in a store, and for that he was beaten and tortured by two men and then murdered. What continues to shock me is the reality that white men in 2019 derive some kind of pleasure from mocking this boy. Why am I shocked? I’ve seen this before. White people reveling in Black pain is not new to me, which is one of the reasons I stopped re-posting videos of the police brutalizing our community. I think it shocks me every time because I don’t have a frame of reference for it. If someone is in pain, I feel their pain too, whether I like them or not. It’s the commonality of human experience. I can put myself in their shoes and understand how they’re feeling. What is it about a roadside memorial for a 14-year-old boy that makes ANYBODY — racist or not — want to gleefully pose next to its bullet-ridden sign with shotguns?
And how does this not rise to the level of expulsion by the university? They got suspended by their fraternity (which is already racist, given their belief that General Robert E. Lee is their “spiritual founder”) and that’s it. They look ready to commit a hate crime. That photo says Emmett Till deserved what he got, because he was Black and wasn’t sufficiently deferential to a white person. That photo says Black people who don’t know their place deserve to be tortured and murdered. That photo says Black people are not safe on campus and the fact that Ole Miss didn’t come to the same conclusion is the reason we still fight for the viability of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.