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50 Years After Emmett Till, Bigotry Isn’t Just for “Bubbas” Anymore

Away Down South

Fifty years ago this past Sunday, the brutal slaying of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicagoan visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta, laid bare the raw savagery and blatant disregard for decency and law that permeated the Jim Crow South. When Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral and Jet magazine published photos of his horrifically bludgeoned face, complete with bullet hole and missing eye, outraged Americans, white and black, began mobilizing for what became an all-out assault on the southern racial system. “[O]nce they saw his body in that casket,” Charles Tisdale, a black journalist who covered the case recalled, “people said the South’s got to change.”

Tisdale’s allusion to the largely southern focus of the animus generated by the Till case was right on target. Across the nation, many seemed to ignore the United States flag posted in the Delta courtroom where Till’s subsequently self-confessed slayers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury despite a substantial body of incriminating evidence to the contrary. It was far easier, even reassuring, for whites in the rest of America to see the racism of white southerners as a regional peculiarity. Far easier also than acknowledging their own tragic, longstanding indifference to the plight of their black fellow citizens, both in the South and in the rest of the country, where conditions were far from equitable.

Scarcely a decade after Till’s death, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights AAct of 1965 finally on the books, the campaign against subtler, defacto forms of discrimination began to spill across the Mason Dixon line. Events like the rock-throwing reception in Cicero, Illinois, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march for open housing, or the warm response by some northern whites to George Wallace’s crudely-coded racial politics in the 1968 & 1972 presidential campaigns, or the vehemence of anti-busing protesters in Boston, should have served notice that bigotry wasn’t just for Bubbas anymore – and probably never had been.

Yet, in 1986 a stunned New York mayor Ed Koch reacted angrily to the racially motivated beating that led to the death of a young black man in Howard Beach, Queens, by insisting that one would normally “expect this kind of thing to happen in the Deep South.” A Queens paper even characterized the incident as “The South Rises Again.” These were hardly the last attempts to set white racism in a regional context and then wonder aloud how it had somehow seeped out of the southern muck and infected respectable, enlightened communities as far distant as New York or California.

Like many white southerners a half-century ago, some Howard Beach residents bitterly resented the attention from external critics and “outside agitators” like the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton’s attempt to lead a march in the community elicited a hail of garbage and verbal abuse, in a scene a local reporter found “as vile and hateful as the ugliness witnessed on the steps of Ol’ Miss” in 1962.

Some nineteen years later, two well publicized and apparently racially inspired white on
black assaults, one in Brooklyn and, more notably, another in Howard Beach, have
marred this New York summer. The lawyer for the alleged victim in the Howard Beach
attack reportedly expressed astonishment that “here in New York we have to live with
lynch mobs,” the implication being that such behavior might be less surprising had it
occurred way down you-know-where. Still, the Howard Beach attackers were brought to
justice in 1986, and there is no reason to think that the alleged attackers in either of the
two more recent cases will escape the same fate if the evidence justifies it.

Nonetheless, one wonders if things might have turned out differently here and in many
other northern cities had more people heeded the words of New York’s Rabbi Edward
Klein in October 1955. Without denying the genuine horrors of the South revealed by the
Till atrocity, Klein pointed to blighted neighborhoods, suburban segregation, and
simmering racial tensions in his own backyard and warned that “we in the North” should
not “take to our souls the unction that our house is in order.” For southerners who still
seem hard pressed at times to convince other Americans that the South has changed in the
last fifty years, there is surely some irony in editorial and political assurances that the
most recent Howard Beach assault will be handled appropriately “because New York has
come a long way since ’86.”

-James C. Cobb is the author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity
(2005). He is Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia. And, he blogs!

Update: Galleycat readers looking for that promised “original content” should reference:

Nancy Sherman’s post on America’s treatment of our Iraq War veterans

Harm de Blij’s post on why geography education really does matter

Jill Quadagno and Jerome Kassirer commenting on the problems in our health care system

And Donald Ritchie’s thoughts on the Karl Rove / Valerie Plame scandal

Just to name a few and there is much more to come, so stay tuned.

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