SHIRLEY DE VILLIERS: No healing without justice and truth
Last week, a curious piece of legislation was passed in the US, making lynching a federal hate crime for the first time. That it took so long to pass is indicative of a deeply fractured society
There’s not much to see on Money Road, the artery that runs through the village of Money, Mississippi (population 100). Google Maps shows a smattering of buildings, a restored petrol station and a quartet of silos. Sandwiched between them is the marker for Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market – a derelict ruin, slowly being reclaimed by nature. Nearby, a Mississippi Freedom Trail plaque marks the site.
Emmett Till was just 14 when he walked into Bryant’s on August 24 1955 to buy bubblegum. Seven days later his bloated, mutilated body would be fished from the nearby Tallahatchie River. An autopsy by the FBI in 2005 would reveal a broken femur, two fractured wrists, and “extensive and dramatic fractures of the skull, [and] metallic fragments identified in the cranium”.
Till had been kidnapped from his great-uncle’s home in the early hours of August 28 by the grocery store proprietor, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother JW Milam. He’d been beaten and shot in the head; a fan had been lashed to his neck with barbed wire to weigh him down, and his body dumped in the Tallahatchie. His crime? Carolyn Bryant, Bryant’s 21-year-old wife, had accused him of flirting with her when she sold him gum.
Till’s story is not unknown. His brutal death helped galvanise the civil rights movement in the US after his mother insisted on an open casket to show the world the brutality he had endured. But justice has remained elusive.
Back in 1955, an all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of murder charges in less than an hour (a juror later said it would have been quicker, had they not taken a soda break). Insulated from further murder charges by the double-jeopardy rule, the pair subsequently admitted their guilt in an interview with Look magazine. They were paid about $4,000 for their story.
In 2004, the FBI reopened the investigation into Till’s death to determine if other perpetrators had been involved, but announced in 2006 that the statute of limitations would have expired on any other possible civil rights crimes. A second investigation, launched in 2017 after Carolyn Bryant reportedly recanted her testimony, was closed in December last year.
As recently as last week, Till’s family was calling for the case to be reopened.
So it may be cold comfort to them that an antilynching bill set for US President Joe Biden’s signature carries his name. The Emmett Till Antilynching Bill, passed by Congress last Monday, will mean lynching can be prosecuted as a federal crime when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or serious injury. Once signed into law, it will allow for a maximum sentence of 30 years – up from 10 years currently for hate crimes where death, kidnapping and sexual abuse aren’t involved.
It’s astounding that it’s taken quite so long. The first such bill was proposed back in 1900 – 55 years before Till’s murder. Since then, there have been about 200 attempts to formalise lynching as a federal hate crime, most recently as 2020. Equally astonishing is that even now three members of the House of Representatives voted against passage of the bill.
Still, it’s an important step. As University of Michigan Afroamerican and African studies chair Matthew Countryman says in this Associated Press explainer, violent crimes (including those related to race) are already covered by state laws – but “states, particularly in the South, have been unwilling to enforce these laws”. And as the New York Times noted in 2020: “Civil rights legislation has often been passed at the federal level after individual states did not act.”
Symbolically, it’s also an important recognition of the blight such atrocities cast on US society.
Memory and memorialisation
Till is one of the 4,734 victims of lynching in the US between 1882 and 1968, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (though the organisation notes this is likely an underestimate). More than 4,000 of those names are etched in stone at the National Memorial for Peace & Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, founded by the Equal Justice Initiative. Tragically, some simply read like this: “Unknown, 11/20/1899”.
It’s one of numerous attempts by civil society to commemorate the lives so senselessly – so criminally – lost. Another such project is artist Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series. Since 2000, he’s been collecting and digitally manipulating photographs of lynchings, removing the victims’ bodies from the frame. The rationale, he says on his website, is that “by erasing the victim’s body I hoped to create a visual experience that would force the viewer to focus on the crowd, and in doing so, to address the underlying racism and bias that was so foundational to many of these acts of collective violence”.
It’s a chilling catalogue of indifference, hatred, bloodlust, racism and banality. And ever so powerful in forcing an examination of the kind of society that allows such atrocity to occur; that encourages it. The very origin of some of Gonzales-Day’s materials is disturbingly sanguinary. Take the 1916 lynching of 17-year-old Jesse Washington, for example. Photographer Fred Gildersleeve took pictures of the entire affair to generate the macabre memorial postcards people would buy for about 10c a pop.
If Gonzales-Day’s works turn the gaze on the complicit population, the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project sets out to restore the dignity of victims by naming each. Detailed in Clint Smith’s thoughtful essay in The Atlantic (also containing Gonzales-Day’s photographs), the project sees communities fill jars with soil from the approximate sites where victims were lynched while telling their stories. Each jar is labelled with the victim’s name, and put on display in the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery. It’s heartbreakingly poignant.
One of those jars carries the name of Howard Cooper, a 15-year-old who’d been convicted by an all-white jury in less than a minute for his alleged assault of a white girl. Before his appeal could be heard at the Supreme Court, a mob had busted him out of his holding cell and hanged him from a sycamore tree outside the prison. His body was taken down 10 hours later, the bits of rope distributed as souvenirs.
A question of accountability
Not a single person was ever held accountable for Cooper’s murder. Or for that of Washington. In fact, the Equal Justice Initiative estimates that only 1% of the perpetrators of lynchings were ever convicted for their crimes. And, as Smith notes, few of the victims’ families ever received a formal apology.
Last May, Maryland governor Larry Hogan posthumously pardoned the alleged crimes of 34 victims of lynching carried out between 1854 and 1933 in the hope of “in some way help[ing] to right these horrific wrongs”. Cooper’s name was on that list. So was “Frederick” a 13-year-old boy with no identifying surname, “[hanged] from a tree in or near Cecilton … about September 1861”.
As the US’s National Public Radio notes, Hogan is the only governor to date who has issued “a comprehensive set of pardons to the men and boys lynched in the state”.
Recognition is a powerful force. But the length of time it’s taken to restore the dignity of the victims, to pardon those accused of crimes, to apologise to families – even to formalise the criminality of lynching as a hate crime in law – points to a society that’s still deeply fractured.
That’s clear if you consider the backlash to the memorialisation around Till.
In 2008, a plaque set up to mark the place where his body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie was stolen and thrown into the river. A subsequent plaque was riddled with bullets. A third similarly defaced memorial was taken down in July 2019, after three fraternity boys from the University of Mississippi were pictured posing next to it with guns.
The memorial has been replaced for a fourth time. According to the New York Times, the new memorial is made of steel, weighs about 225kg and is more than 2.5cm thick. It’s built, the designer’s website reportedly says, “to withstand a rifle round without damage”.
As Airickca Gordon-Taylor – the daughter of Till’s cousin – told the Times in 2019: “Basically my family is still being confronted with a hate crime against Emmett Till and it’s almost 65 years later.”
As Till’s family well knows, the truth cannot be dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Without it there can be no justice, and fractured societies cannot begin to heal.
De Villiers is the editor of the FM’s Features section
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