“Let the People See,” by Elliot J. Gorn, is the latest entry in a long line of books and documentaries about Emmett Till. And, I might add, it’s an impressive and thorough one.
Emmett Till was a teenager lynched in a brutal murder in Mississippi in 1955. An exuberant lad from Chicago, his mom sent him south to spend the summer with relatives with a warning about the repressive climate of the segregated South.
Anyone who’s ever raised a teenager knows that all the “you be carefuls” in the world can fall on deaf ears. Till, by most accounts, whistled at a comely white shop clerk, and for his carelessness he paid. Kidnapped from his relative’s home, brutally beaten, probably over the course of hours, and eventually shot and disposed of in the Tallahatchie River, Till would have been just another victim in a long line of African American murders if his mother hadn’t insisted that his mangled body be brought home and displayed for the world to see.
His death, and specifically her dramatic gesture, were part of the impetus that impassioned the Civil Rights movement.
This summer, I’ve also been listening to the National Public Radio podcast, “White Lies” which details the killing in 1965, after the Selma march, of a white minister from Detroit named James Reeb, who had responded to Martin Luther King’s pleas for clergy to come South. Catholics went also. I know a Servite sister, Mary Hogan, who sat on the grass by the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma that fateful day.
Rev. Reeb was beaten later on the street after leaving a restaurant. There were many witnesses, including the other white ministers with him, but his assailants, like Till’s, were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury.
Just writing those words, “all-white, all-male” makes my blood boil.
Those events happened when I was a child. And yet, our nation is still embroiled in racism.
Reading about these long-ago atrocities puts into perspective the horrors right now. Racism (and misogyny) have been part of our history for a long time, and our faith continually calls us to respond.
One of my favorite quotes is from Peter Maurin: “The only real revolution is the revolution in one person’s heart.”
Maurin was a collaborator and friend of Dorothy Day, and his quote always brings me a measure of peace, even now in these awful times when white supremacy seems to have once-again achieved acceptance in certain areas of our country.
Maurin is not calling us to a faith that is isolated or private. But he’s reminding us that the only way we can be beacons for justice, for truth, for Christ, is to strive for revolution, metanoia, conversion, first within our own lives.
Especially within our own hearts. Like the hymn we sing at Mass, “I will write my law, not on stone, but in your heart,” we have to establish a relationship with God, with Jesus, that sees us through the depravity of our times. And we have to seek peace and courage there, a tall order in these days of 24-hour news and constant Twitter access. Maybe that’s the toughest thing: being constantly exposed to the meanness, the politics, while finding our own core.
It’s when we find the contemplative time to pursue revolution in our own lives that we can go out into the world and stand strong. It’s then that we experience the faith that Jesus taught at the Last Supper, when he washed the feet of others and commanded us to do the same thing.
The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.