“And I wonder why it is that the forces of evil seem to reign supreme and the forces of goodness seem to be trampled over. Every now and then I feel like asking God, Why is it that over so many centuries the forces of injustice have triumphed over the Negro and he has been forced to live under oppression and slavery and exploitation? Why is it, God? Why is it simply because some of your children ask to be treated as first-class human beings they are trampled over, their homes are bombed, their children are pushed from their classrooms, and sometimes little children [referencing Emmett Till] are thrown in the deep waters of Mississippi? Why is it, oh God, that that has to happen? I begin to despair sometimes, it seems that Good Friday has the throne. It seems that the forces of injustice reign supreme. But then in the midst of that something else comes to me.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. 1957 Easter Sermon in Montgomery, Alabama, “Questions that Easter Answers.”
Earlier today, I gathered our older children in the kitchen and told them the tragic and infuriating story of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old African American boy who was brutally lynched in 1955 for the ‘crime’ of talking to a young married woman whom he had just purchased candy from. To my knowledge, it was the first that my kids had heard of Emmett Till, a fact which I, as a history teacher responsible for their education, feel quite saddened by. They should have known about Emmett Till before now. Maybe you don’t know about Emmett either? Or maybe you’ve heard the name before, but are hazy on the details of his story. Here’s what happened, why it is trending on Twitter today*** (scroll to the bottom), and a little bit about the radical person who called for forgiveness for the murderers of young Emmett.
In August of 1955, Emmett Till, a young teenager from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, a tiny (400 population at the time) town in the Delta area in the middle of the state. Till and a few friends skipped church one Sunday morning, and went to Bryant’s Grocery store in Money to purchase some candy. While at the store, Till allegedly showed some of his friends that accompanied him a picture of his school class in Chicago, which was integrated, featuring white and black students in the same classroom. This, along with Till’s statement that he had white friends, was shocking to his companions in the segregated south, who may (or may not…) have challenged him to talk with Carolyn Bryant, the 21 year old shopkeeper that was tending to Bryant’s Grocery store that morning. Later, Carolyn Bryant apparently told her husband and some other relatives that Emmett had flirted with her, testifying later in court that he had grabbed her hand and said, “How about a date, baby?”*** This testimony, later proved to be a LIE, so incensed Bryant’s husband Roy, and his half brother J.W. Milam, that they went and found Emmett, kidnapped him from his preacher Uncle, tortured him, and killed him. A FOURTEEN year old boy. Witnesses later testified that Till was heard to cry out, “Mama, Lord have mercy…Lord have mercy,” as he was being beaten to death. Till was shot in the head, brutally beaten all over his body, and his eye was dislodged from his socket when he was found and pulled from a river, where he had been tied to a 75 pound piece of metal, and drowned.
Ultimately, Milam and Bryant were arrested and charged with murder. There was little hope of a conviction, however, in 1950s Mississippi. Indeed, a week before Till had arrived in town, Civil Rights activist Lamar Smith had been gunned down in front of a courthouse in Brookhaven, and his white killers would end up judged not guilty. Similarly, Milam and Bryant were acquitted – primarily due to the defense claims that it couldn’t conclusively be proved that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River, was the body of Emmett Till. Reading the circumstances of the trial, however, one comes away with the belief that justice was miscarried to an extreme degree. Sheriff Strider, the chief lawman in Money who had arrested and jailed two key prosecution eyewitnesses to keep them from testifying, was said to have greeted African-Americans that came to watch the five day trial with a cheerful, “Hello, N***rs!” Strider, an evil, almost caricatured version of the racist Southern lawman, also threatened those around the country who had sent his office letters of critique, threatening that if they ever came to Mississippi, “the same thing’s gonna happen to them that happened to Emmett Till”
Further, the all white jurors were allowed to drink beer during the court proceedings, and many of the white spectators came armed with guns to the trial, which surely had an intimidating effect. Thus it is very unsurprising that the jury voted to acquit both men after deliberating for just over an hour. One juror noted that it could have even been a shorter deliberation, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.” Subsequently, after the trial, it was shown that most of the jurors did, in fact, believe that Bryant and Milam were guilty, but that the potential sentence for their crime – death or life in prison – was too harsh of a punishment for a white man who killed a black child. (SOURCE for both statements)
That justice was miscarried is indisputable. Both Bryant and Milam, admitted their guilt in a 1956 interview, knowing they would not be punished for it due to the American legal principle of double jeopardy. In that interview in Look Magazine, Milam offered up this hateful assessment:
“I’m no bully; I never hurt a ni***r in my life. I like ni***rs—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, ni***rs are gonna stay in their place. Ni***rs ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a ni***r gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that ni***r throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. God**m you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”
It can be said, with an appropriate degree of sadness, anger and hope, that Emmett Till did not die in vain. I am not terribly comfortable with that sentence, so perhaps I can word it in a somewhat different way: Emmett Till’s death, as tragic as it was, had the remarkable impact of igniting and energizing the Civil Rights Movement in a very galvanizing way. Till’s mother made the difficult decision to have an open casket funeral for her son. There are pictures available for this, but as important as they are historically, I think I am going to avoid putting them here. The funeral for Till – with his disfigured corpse on full display – caused an outcry among many in the United States, and helped to unite several factions that had been separately striving for civil rights. It was eye-opening for many American whites to realize the depths of racism found in America, and even a majority of people in and around Money, Mississippi utterly rejected Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, forcing them to move to Texas, where they were equally unpopular. Emmett Till’s unjust death also served as a strong inspiration for Rosa Parks, the Montgomery bus rider who refused to give up her seat.
“Mississippi became in the eyes of the nation the epitome of racism and the citadel of white supremacy. From this time on, the slightest racial incident anywhere in the state was spotlighted and magnified. To the Negro race throughout the South and to some extent in other parts of the country, this verdict indicated an end to the system of noblesse oblige. The faith in the white power structure waned rapidly. Negro faith in legalism declined, and the revolt officially began on December 1, 1955, with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.” – Historian Stephen Whittaker
SO – what should our response to the death of Emmett Till be? How should society respond to the revelation that Carolyn Bryant FABRICATED and LIED about the whole incident? Should she be arrested for inciting this murder? Perhaps so. What Bryant did is astonishingly inexcusable. There is no acceptable reason or excuse she can use to justify herself. Less so, there is neither reason nor justification for the brutal actions of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant and all of the other purveyors of racial atrocities, like Bull Connor, Byron De La Beckwith, James Earl Ray, and the murderers of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Those men are rightly vilified. But…should they be forgiven? Should forgiveness be offered for those who have committed extreme acts of violence and racism, or – as many on Twitter and other social media are suggesting – should people like Carolyn Bryant and her ilk “rot in hell,” because what they’ve done is beyond forgiveness? I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think anything, in light of Jesus and His death on the cross, is beyond forgiveness for all who would look to Him in faith believing. However, I realize the peril of me – a white man who has never been the victim of racial prejudice – calling for forgiveness for egregious racists and past acts of racism. No, I’m not going to call for those people to be forgiven, but I do have a few quotes to share, in closing. These are quotes from a well known radical of past years. A man whom many considered crazy, uppity and dangerous in his day. That man, Martin Luther King Jr., actually had a lot to say about the death of Emmett Till, and how we should treat his killers:
Bennett College Newspaper Interviewer: “Doctor King, I have just a few questions. Now you talk about forgiveness and that you must forgive. Do you find that really in your heart you can forgive the men who, say, killed Emmett Till or castrated this innocent man? And don’t you find it really hard…”
[King:] [interrupting] Well, if you really love on the basis of Christian concepts, forgiveness is very difficult. It isn’t easy. And when it becomes so easy it really isn’t forgiveness. There is pain and agony. A husband who loves his wife or vice versa, when one makes a tragic mistake, they can’t forgive easy. But it’s possible. And when I say forgiving I don’t mean that this is something weak or this is something, just a sentimental sort of thing. I think ultimately it is the only [normal?] method of reconciliation. Whether it’s in social life, or whether it’s in individual relations. It’s very difficult and it’s very hard not to become bitter toward such persons. But forgiveness has great psychological value. Not only does it have healing social power but it has psychological power. If I’m bitter toward a man it hurts me as much as it hurts him. And I think psychologists are telling us today that hate not only hurts the hated but it hurts the hater as much. So for me not to forgive the people who killed Emmett Till or the people who mutilated the man in Birmingham, I am setting in my very personality a structure of evil which can cause a disintegration in my personality.” (Dr. King is speaking of those who murdered Emmett Till and those Ku Klux Klan men who castrated and tortured Judge Edward Aaron, a developmentally disabled African American man in Birmingham, Alabama.
Let me close this long post with the conclusion of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote that I began with – the ending of his message that referenced the power of evil in the death of Till and the greater power of love, forgiveness and Jesus:
You know every now and then, my friends, I doubt. Every now and then I get disturbed myself. Every now and then I become bewildered about this thing. I begin to despair every now and then. And wonder why it is that the forces of evil seem to reign supreme and the forces of goodness seem to be trampled over. Every now and then I feel like asking God, Why is it that over so many centuries the forces of injustice have triumphed over the Negro and he has been forced to live under oppression and slavery and exploitation? Why is it, God? Whyis it simply because some of your children ask to be treated as first-class human beings they are trampled over, their homes are bombed, their children are pushed from their classrooms, and sometimes little children are thrown in the deep waters of Mississippi?16Why is it, oh God, that that has to happen? I begin to despair sometimes, it seems that Good Friday has the throne. It seems that the forces of injustice reign supreme. But then in the midst of that something else comes to me.
And I can hear something saying, “King, you are stopping at Good Friday, but don’t you know that Easter is coming? (Yeah) Don’t worry about this thing! You are just in the midst of the transition now. You are just in the midst of Good Friday now. But I want you to know, King, that Easter is coming! One day truth will rise up and reign supreme! (Yeah) One day justice will rise up. One day all of the children of God will be able to stand up on the third day and then cry, ‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah’ (Yeah) because it’s the Resurrection day.” (That’s the truth)
And when I hear that I don’t despair. I can cry out and sing with new meaning. This is the meaning of Easter, it answers the profound question that we confront in Montgomery. And if we can just stand with it, if we can just live with Good Friday, things will be all right. For I know that Easter is coming and I can see it coming now. As I look over the world, as I look at America, I can see Easter coming in race relations. I can see it coming on every hand. I see it coming in Montgomery. I see it coming in Alabama. I see it coming in Mississippi. Sometimes it looks like it’s coming slow, but it’s still coming. (Yeah) And when it comes, it will be a great day, for all of the children of God will be able to stand up and cry, “This is God’s day. All hail the power of Jesus’s name.” This is the meaning of it.
…[the most durable power in the world is] the power of love. Easter tells us that. Sometimes it looks like the other powers are much more durable. Then we come to see that isn’t true. But the most durable, lasting power in this world is the power to love…
And I watched Jesus as he walked around the hills of Galilee just doing good, just preaching the gospel to the brokenhearted, healing the sick and raising the dead. And I just watched him. I looked at him, and I said, “Now, he doesn’t have a band [following him?] He has no great army! He has no great military power.” Then I can see him go with another kind of army. I can hear him as he says somehow to himself, “I’m just going to put on the breastplate of righteousness. And I’m going take the ammunition of love and the whole armor of God, and I’m just gonna march.” And my friends, he started marching. And after he marched a little while, he came to his Waterloo. Good Friday came, and there he was on the cross. That was his Waterloo. But the difference is that Napoleon’s Waterloo ended with Waterloo. Jesus’s Waterloo ended transforming Waterloo. (Amen) And there came that third day. And this was the [time?] that he was able to reign supreme. His Waterloo couldn’t stop him. He stopped Waterloo. And this became the beginning of his influence. This became the most powerful moment of his life. [As?] I walked away from that building, I could hear choirs singing everywhere. On this side, it seemed that I could hear somebody saying:
All hail the power of Jesus’s name!
Let angels prostrate fall, (That’s the truth)
Bring forth the royal diadem,
And crown him Lord of all.
We thank you, this morning, for your Son, Jesus, who came by to let us know that love is the most durable power in the world, who came by to let us know that death can’t defeat us, to take the sting out of the grave and death and make it possible for all of us to have eternal life.” Martin Luther King, Jr. Easter, 1957 sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
*** The reason that Emmett Till is trending today on social media is because Carolyn Bryant, who is still alive and in her 80s, has been interviewed for a new book by Timothy Tyson about the Emmett Till murder. In that book, Tyson recounts that Bryant has completely recanted her story that Till made verbal and physical advances towards her. She can’t remember the details of anything that happened that day, but she admits she fabricated – LIED – about the most sensational facts of the case. Frustratingly, it would appear that while Ms. Bryant seems to regret what happened, she evidences little repentance for her role in the murder of Emmett Till. That is tragic, but let me be crystal CLEAR. There is absolutely NOTHING in the Bible that discourages relationships between white people and black people in any way, shape, or form. If Till HAD made advances towards Ms. Bryant, which he obviously did NOT, he might have been guilty of being fresh, or something in that realm, but nothing more! Yes, the Israelites were prohibited in the Bible to marry people from nations that followed foreign Gods, but that was a RELIGIOUS prohibition, in the OLD Covenant, that directly applied to ISRAELITES – not Gentiles. (Gentiles are all of those who are not of Israelite blood – Americans, Africans, Asians, etc.) There is NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING in the Bible that suggests that white people and black people should not be in relationship, married or otherwise. It is the vile racism to the core, and extreme biblical ignorance to argue otherwise. If you believe that people of different races shouldn’t get married then that is your opinion, and it is a very WRONGHEADED one, but it is not an opinion based on the Bible, or the will of God in any way. Please don’t do what many racists in the past have done: twist the Bible to justify your sin.