Friday, 26 July 2013

For your own safety, do try to avoid being black

Intent on steadying young people, the Mikado of Japan decreed, according to Gilbert and Sullivan, ‘that all who flirted, leered or winked, (unless connubially linked), should forthwith be beheaded.’

Generation after generation has laughed at this crazy idea ever since The Mikado was first performed in 1885. But it’s a lot less funny when the attitude
s taken seriously and actually put into action. 

Particularly when the form of execution isn’t as simple as beheading, but involves being savagely beaten and having an eye gouged out before being shot through the head. And it doesn’t make the event any funnier if the victim is 14.

Of course, he wasn’t just any old fourteen-year old. He’d made a serious misjudgement, and allowed himself to be born black. He’d then travelled from his native Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. And that’s where he’d committed his offence, talking to or possibly whistling at, a young white woman. 

For that, her husband and a friend of his kidnapped the boy, Emmett Till, and gave him a lesson he’d remember for the rest of his life; and then made sure that the rest wasn’t long.

Emmett Till: paid dearly for his errors
Perhaps the only admirable aspect of this story was the behaviour of a young black man, Willie Reed. He witnessed Till being taken into a barn, heard the beating and screaming, and saw the perpetrators emerge. From somewhere, he found the courage to testify at the subsequent trial, even though he had to force his way through a crowd of Klansmen to get to the court building at all.

Reed was later smuggled out of Mississippi to protect him from reprisals. He moved to Chicago where he lived under the name of Willie Louis until he died peacefully last week, on 18 July 2013, at the age of 76. F
or decades, he kept his past secret even from his wife. He only began to speak publicly about the case ten years ago.

Willie Reed (Willie Louis)
Testified in vain at the trial
His testimony did no good, anyway. The all-white Jury acquitted the defendants, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam; later on, protected by double-jeopardy legislation, they admitted (boasted of?) their guilt. 

Bryant and Milam, upstanding citizens of Mississippi
and clearly proud of it
The case became a cause célèbre and another of the trigger events for the civil rights movement and the reforms that followed. Because all this happened a long time ago: in 1955. Today things have changed monumentally. We’d all like to think that this kind of thing is behind us for ever.

Though it seems it’s still not a judicious choice to be born black. And it’s dangerous to persist in being black if you’re going to take irresponsible action, such as purchasing groceries at night in Miami while young. That was 17-year old Trayvon Martin
’s mistake on 26 February 2012, and it left him dead too.

Trayvon Martin
Executed for the threatening behaviour of carrying groceries by night
I suppose we ought to be grateful that Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, at least didn’t beat him first or gouge out one of his eyes. But just like Till’s killers, he shot his victim. And at the end, Martin was as dead as Till.

While Zimmerman walked just as free from the court that acquitted him this year as Bryant and Milam did from theirs.


Anonymous said...

David, thanks so much for sharing this with me.

Believe it or not, I thought of similarities between the two court cases you presented but I never took the time to write it. But I'm glad that you do, and I will be sharing.

Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

I don't think I can add much to what you've written here. There are all kinds of reasons for not being born black. I'm glad my parents paid attention, but I wish there was more I could do to protect the ones whose parents weren't as far sighted. It's just that these things sneak up on you in unexpected ways.

David Beeson said...

Thanks, Marcie - delighted to have thought of a parallel that had struck you too.

Faith, beautifully put. Things certainly sneaked up unexpectedly on both Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin.