Why whites should learn black history

January 17, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - A lot of people, including me, wonder what in the world Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi could have been thinking when he blabbed his way into a firestorm of controversy and out of his majority leadership post.

I said at the time that he was a product of his environment. He grew up, after all, in the segregated South. Some readers thought I was being too easy on him. Maybe I was, especially if you happen to be tone deaf to my attempt at irony. Other readers thought I was being too hard on him, and they were not trying to be ironic.

The gap between these two views tells us something about why Black History Month is not for blacks only.

That thought crossed my mind as I viewed Stanley Nelson's new PBS documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till.

The film, scheduled to be broadcast Monday, revisits the notorious 1955 murder in Mississippi of a 14-year-old Chicago boy who allegedly broke the South's unwritten racial code by whistling at a white woman.

Young Emmett's murder was a defining moment for African-American kids like me. I was 7 at the time. I vividly remember my friends smuggling copies of Jet magazine into our southern Ohio grade school and surreptitiously passing around the gruesome photos of young Emmett lying in his casket.

He was shot in the head, beaten beyond recognition and rolled into the Tallahatchie River.

Although I lived in the North, I knew what segregation was. Within eyesight of our racially integrated grade school there was a restricted public swimming pool where only my white friends could get wet. .

We colored kids did not like this system but we put up with it, which enabled whites to convince themselves that we actually liked it. Mr. Nelson's documentary exhumes some extraordinary black-and-white news footage to show us how much Southern whites had convinced themselves that blacks liked second-class citizenship down in the South, too.

One middle-aged white man on the street expresses more disdain for the mother than for the murder. "I can't understand how a civilized mother could put a dead body of her child on public display," he huffs.

White Mississippians began to close ranks along racial lines, telling crude racial jokes about Mr. Till and collecting $10,000 in countertop jars in local stores for the two suspects. Black Mississippians stayed largely mute on camera - for good reason.

The two suspects were acquitted by an all-white jury that deliberated less than an hour. They would later confess.

But Mamie Till's decision to leave the coffin open for the world to witness her only child's horror ignited the grass-roots civil rights movement that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others would lead in the South. For four days, thousands of people filed through the church to view Emmett's body. Thousands more rallied against lynchings in other cities from Los Angeles to New York City. And 100 days after young Emmett was killed, Alabamian Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person and the Montgomery bus boycott began.

Mamie Till Mobley died of heart failure Jan. 6 in a Chicago hospital at 81, one day before she was to travel to Atlanta to speak about her son's lynching. It is sadly ironic that she would die at a time when interest in her son's death has made a coincidental resurgence. There are at least two new books and two new documentary films, plus another book Mrs. Mobley was authoring with writer Christopher Benson.

All of which comes a bit too late for Trent Lott. But not for the rest of us.

Surely, if Mr. Lott had not fooled himself with the one-sided view of history that too many Americans have received, he would not have remarked so casually at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that the country would have been better off if Mr. Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign had succeeded.

Mr. Lott found out the hard way how deeply into racial denial he had sunk. So have those who don't think his remarks were any big deal.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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