Ugly mo­ments can’t be erased from our past

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Leonard Pitts Jr. The Mi­ami Her­ald Leonard Pitts is syn­di­cated by Tri­bune Me­dia Services.

Colum­nist Leonard Pitts com­ments in the wake of van­dal­ism to a sign erected in mem­ory of Em­mett Till.

So what was it they were try­ing to kill?

Af­ter all, the sign stand­ing near the Tal­la­hatchie River is cratered by dozens of bul­let holes. More than idle tar­get prac­tice, it sug­gests a frenzy of gun­fire, an at­tempt to kill some­thing. And the some­thing is not re­ally that hard to name.

Mem­ory. They sought to as­sas­si­nate mem­ory.

The dam­aged sign, dis­cov­ered last week and posted to Face­book by stu­dent film­maker Kevin Wil­son Jr., marks the spot where the body of Em­mett Till, barbed wire around his neck ty­ing him to a 75-pound fan from a cot­ton gin, sur­faced 61 years ago.

He had trav­eled to the noth­ing town of Money, Miss., to visit fam­ily for the sum­mer. Em­mett, a 14-yearold black boy from Chicago un­schooled in the ways of the Jim Crow South, ac­cepted a school­boy dare: Bet you won’t whis­tle at that white woman in the store. He car­ried out the chal­lenge, wolf-whistling at 21-yearold Carolyn Bryant.

Four days later, her hus­band, Roy Bryant, and his half­brother, J.W. Milam, came for him in the dark of night.

The body that was pulled from the Tal­la­hatchie River three days af­ter­ward barely re­sem­bled a hu­man be­ing, much less a prank­ish boy. It was bloated to the point of shape­less­ness and had been sav­agely beaten. An eye had been gouged out. There was a bul­let hole in the skull.

The brothers freely ad­mit­ted the kid­nap­ping. A wit­ness placed Milam at a barn in­side of which he said he heard a child be­ing tor­tured. Yet ju­rors ac­quit­ted them in un­der an hour. One said it took that long only be­cause they stopped to “drink pop.”

Em­mett’s mother, Mamie Till Mob­ley, in­sisted on an open-cas­ket funeral. She said she wanted the world to see what had hap­pened to her child in Amer­ica. The world saw and was hor­ri­fied. African Amer­i­cans saw and seethed with a fa­mil­iar out­rage that was old even then.

Four months later, an Alabama seam­stress named Rosa Parks re­fused a bus driver’s de­mand for her seat. There are those who say the two events were not un­re­lated.

And here, per­haps the reader looks to the writer for as­sur­ance that while you can van­dal­ize a sign you can­not, in fact, mur­der mem­ory. The writer has no such as­sur­ance to give.

Who­ever de­stroyed that sign rep­re­sents, al­beit crudely, an emerg­ing American con­sen­sus. It says that things which give us pain are bet­ter off for­got­ten, some mem­o­ries bet­ter off dead.

So you get Cal Thomas and Snoop Dogg com­plain­ing that “Roots” has been re­made. And text­books teach­ing slav­ery as “im­mi­gra­tion.” And Mar­garet Biser, a do­cent on a South­ern plan­ta­tion, writ­ing of be­ing scolded once that talk­ing about slave life “is bring­ing down Amer­ica.”

For­get about it, they say. For­get Ru­bin Stacy and Mary Turner. For­get Trayvon Martin. For­get Em­mett Till.

We’d never say “For­get Anne Frank.” That would be like killing her all over again. But then, Amer­ica bears no con­science scars there. Amer­ica did not kill her. In its in­tran­si­gence and ha­tred it did, how­ever, kill Em­mett.

Nor is this the first time the marker of that tragedy has been dam­aged. In Mis­sis­sippi, such mark­ers are of­ten van­dal­ized. With spray paint and guns or just re­fusal and de­nial, some of us seek to mur­der mem­ory. But oth­ers of us stand stub­bornly in mem­ory’s de­fense. One is glad to hear money is be­ing raised to re­place the Em­mett Till sign.

Be­sides, even if you kill mem­ory, you do not es­cape the past. Amer­ica is shaped by Em­mett Till’s death and al­ways will be, even if we no longer know his name.

We make his­tory. But his­tory makes us, too.

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