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The Lesson of Emmett Till Has Been Ignored for Decades

Reopening the Till case doesn’t even begin to address the white terrorism festering in Trump’s America

Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed.

Emmett Till

Bettmann/Getty Images

Murder can be a message, and the men who lynched Emmett Till in 1955 surely sought to communicate through his broken and bloated flesh. The 14-year-old boy falsely accused of sexually harassing Carolyn Bryant in Money, Mississippi, instantly became both a victim and a lesson. Had his killers wanted to merely scare him, they could have. No, Emmett was beaten, shot, then tied to a cotton gin fan and set down in the Tallahatchie River to tell every black person in the surrounding area – and perhaps the entire United States – that our lives were meaningless, our civil rights a mere rumor, our bodies useful only as driftwood.

Emmett’s slaughter was a hate crime, surely, by any standards. It is difficult to conceive of someone doing that to a child without a deep loathing in his heart. But when Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, forced America to look upon her desecrated son in his casket, publishing that horrifying David Jackson photograph in Jet magazine, she also shined a light on how terrorism works. Racial brutality isn’t so much about what perpetrators feel, or even what they seek to convey to their victims. It is about the message those villains want to send to all of us who are potential Emmett Tills, and are left to bear witness and live under threat.

Though that haunting photograph is hailed as a catalytic moment for the civil rights movement, the American criminal justice system hasn’t bothered to meet the challenge. That is why I just shook my head when I read the news Thursday morning that, ever so quietly, the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reopened the investigation into Emmett Till’s murder. In an administration I could trust, I might wonder if they will seek to punish Bryant, Emmett’s accuser, who is still alive and now has the surname Donham. She recanted her story about Emmett’s behavior in a conversation with Duke historian Timothy Tyson, published early last year in his book The Blood of Emmett Till. I doubt that we’ll see Sessions ordering the arrest of a white Southern lady in her eighties, though. Perhaps reopening the case is for show, born of a desire to emphasize that racial violence like this is a thing of the past. It isn’t difficult to imagine this president or attorney general arguing that an Emmett Till lynching couldn’t happen in 2018. Even if it did, though, how can we be sure that the killers would see anything that resembled justice?

Even today, lynching is not a federal hate crime. To address that, the only three black members of the United States Senate – Republican Tim Scott and Democrats Kamala Harris and Cory Booker – recently introduced The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018. They shouldn’t stop there, as it has become painfully clear of late that the United States government is still not prepared to understand or protect us from racial terrorism.

We see evidence of this in the case of Benjamin Thomas Samuel McDowell. The 31-year-old South Carolina man was sentenced Wednesday to fewer than three years in federal prison for plotting a mass murder “in the spirit of Dylann Roof,” a fellow white supremacist now on death row for shooting nine black parishioners to death at a Charleston church in 2015. HuffPost’s Ryan Reilly reported that McDowell’s mental disorders and “significantly below average” intelligence appear to have played a role in his plea deal, but we can really thank our insufficient laws for his light sentencing.

As Reilly noted, there is no federal criminal statute that broadly outlaws acts of domestic terrorism, so such plots may still be dealt with through more lenient criminal codes. Had McDowell been a member of any recognizably foreign radical group intent upon committing attacks in the United States, he could have been charged as a terrorist and given a much longer prison term. Alas, because McDowell is an American who sought to enforce white hegemony through old-fashioned American violence, he will likely breathe free air again while he is still young. 

That is a particularly conspicuous problem in a country with a president who not only practices bigotry without apology, but makes intolerance a key element of his strategy to obtain and maintain power. Racial violence has been an American tradition since long before the election of Donald Trump, but white supremacists have been heartened by his arrival in the White House. These terrorists don’t need an excuse, per se, but I suspect that they respond to encouragement.

Hate crimes spiked the very day after Trump’s victory. Mother Jones reported this week that since the fall of 2016, at least two far-right bomb plots and 15 violent attacks and killings have taken place inside the U.S., killing 21 and injuring 27. That includes last August’s white supremacist rally and subsequent riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which Heather Heyer was murdered by a neo-Nazi who plowed his car into a crowd. Trump infamously deemed some of the outwardly racist agitators to be “very fine people.”

If Trump merely shrugged at white extremism, it actually would be better. Instead, with very few exceptions, he has been overt in giving these terrorists a pass. Both our president and his fellow Republicans regularly exploit many of the toxic traits that lead people toward this ideology. The GOP is the only party that seems to have neo-Nazis and such running for office, and the silence from Republican leadership is deafening.

It is difficult to forget Trump backing his xenophobic travel ban after a London terror attack last summer while ignoring nearly simultaneous racist murders in College Park, Maryland, and Portland, Oregon. With a few exceptions, Trump has largely used his pardon power to convey obvious messages to white nationalists and other fools on the right. He pardoned Joe Arpaio, who as it turns out, merely beta-tested Trump’s own brutality on brown people.

Earlier this week, the president gave a full pardon to Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted in 2012 of arson on federal land. Their convictions were part of Ammon Bundy’s stated justification for his 41-day occupation of a national wildlife refuge. Trump just OK’d all of that violence with the stroke of a pen. While these incidents weren’t explicitly about race, pardoning the Hammonds only further calcifies the stale, Eurocentric archetype of the Western settler willing to defend his land with gun in hand, against the federal government if necessary. It’s the very image that could never be us, and rightfully strikes fear into many of us: We are told this is what a patriot looks like. 

Trump’s clumsy signaling to the far right is also dangerous because it further normalizes the image of white, conservative men with firearms, even as it becomes more evident that such people are among the most dangerous in America. White American men have proven to be a much greater terrorist threat than virtually any other ethnic group commonly associated with that crime, and people are dying because our government has ignored this threat over generations. And the laissez-faire laws we have, both with regard to munitions and punishment, ensure that the problem is likely to worsen. Benjamin McDowell is only in prison now because he bought the gun he was going to use to murder Jews, Muslims and people of color from an undercover FBI agent. But had he gone to a Walmart, his name may have been splashed across different, far more tragic headlines.

The giant holes in our jurisprudence that keep men like McDowell off the street for longer than two years and nine months need to be addressed with the urgency that a doctor treats a bullet wound. More than anything, the Trump presidency has shown us what we need to fix about America. Atop that long list is the permissiveness we show for domestic terrorism, at least when it has a white face.

 

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