You didn’t signal that you were turning or you have only one license plate on your vehicle in a state that requires two or… The list goes on. You hear a siren, look in your rear-view mirror, see that dome light turning and know it’s a cop. You think, maybe I’ll get a warning. Even if I get a ticket, it will be for a minor infraction. But what if you are an African American?
The police officer comes up, words are exchanged, and…
Aug. 28, marks the 60th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, age 14, by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam in Money, Mississippi. They beat him, shot him, weighted his body down and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. The next month, September of 1955, the two were acquitted of kidnapping and murder. In 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice reopened the case and exhumed Till’s body.
Recently, I spoke with Pearl Lofton, currently of Birmingham, Alabama who knew Till in Argo, Illinois, a small primarily African American community outside of Chicago. “When I knew Emmett, I was about 10, and he was friends with my brother, Fred Lee. I had a crush on him, and I’d stand in the living room and peek out at him from behind the curtains. He was just a normal, cute, 14-year-old boy. He and my brother would just walk around in the summer, go to an ice cream shop which was about a mile away and hang out.
“When I heard about his death, it just broke my heart — on a young girl’s level.”
Lofton tells me, “Now it’s gone full circle. Back then, they’d just lynch us and get away with it. If you did something a white man didn’t like, you’d be horsewhipped or lynched according to how severe it was. Now they have to find a way that is less obvious, more overt. Now it’s the police that’s doing it. And usually it’s a group — not man enough to go one-on-one.”
She tires of hearing law enforcement saying, “We’re here to help you; we’d never harm you.”
As the mother of a son who is now an adult with sons of his own, she says, “Keeping him out of jail or from being killed wasn’t easy. Until he grew up and became a man, he thought I was crazy. I’d check my children once a month, had them line up in shorts and tees to check them for track marks on arms, feet, legs.
“And when my son didn’t show up after school, I got in my car and went looking for him. I’d grab him by his arm or shirt and take him home. I never said a word, just did it. And I also did a lot of praying.”
She discusses the unfair treatment her son received from a teacher who humiliated him in a loud voice in front of the class. Her son came home crying, so she went to the school and asked the teacher, “What has my son done to upset you?”
The teacher’s response was, “He’s a wonderful student, wish I had more like him.”
Her next question, “Why did you humiliate him?” And the teacher apologized.
Lofton understands the complexities in this culture of being African American. She says, “Each time you ask something, it’s like a knitted blanket: You pull a thread and it unravels something new.”
She indicates that it’s about schools where African American children are treated as “sub-human beings.” It’s about “our contaminated neighborhoods where whites come to get drugs and then retreat to their safe neighborhoods. We get the communities that white people leave where the grass don’t grow, the trees are cut down and the houses are run down.”
Further, it’s about law enforcement: “Any time the police are involved with a young black man, you fear whether he’s going to come out of it alive.” And it’s about “employment , a definite problem. Unless they have a good education, there’s no work. And even with a good education, they must take jobs that they’re overqualified for.”
Lofton knows. She understands. Her understanding came early as she saw the deadly consequences when she learned of the murder of Emmett Till. Did she see his swollen, beaten body in the coffin that his mother mandated be open so that the world could see what had been done to her son? No, but the world can see a photo on the Internet, and I make sure my college students in American literature classes see the photo of him as a young beautiful boy at Christmas the year before he was murdered as well as the photo of him in his coffin in 1955.
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