Em­mett Till’s eter­nal youth and a shot-up South­ern sign

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - OPINION - Leonard Pitts Jr. He writes for the Mi­ami Her­ald.

“Noth­ing that boy did could ever jus­tify what hap­pened to him.”

So says Carolyn Bryant Don­ham in his­to­rian Ti­mothy B. Tyson’s 2017 book, “The Blood of Em­mett Till.” You keep hop­ing for more, hop­ing to hear her wres­tle with her crime, ex­plain how she could have done what she did — and how she lives with her­self now.

But in the end, the ad­mis­sion is all she gives, the only glimpse you get into how she views her role in one of his­tory’s sig­na­ture atroc­i­ties, the bru­tal lynch­ing of a 14-year-old Chicago boy who sup­pos­edly got fresh with her one fate­ful day in her fam­ily store in the noth­ing town of Money, Mis­sis­sippi, and the ac­quit­tal of his killers, Don­ham’s hus­band and his half­brother. “Noth­ing that boy did could ever jus­tify what hap­pened to him,” she says now, as if that hasn’t been glar­ingly ob­vi­ous for 63 years, ever since Till’s bloated, mu­ti­lated corpse was fished from the Tal­la­hatchie River.

Still, her words are his­toric. This is ap­par­ently Don­ham’s first pub­lic state­ment on the no­to­ri­ous case since right af­ter it hap­pened. In the book, she also re­cants the most ex­plo­sive part of her 1955 ac­cu­sa­tion — that Till cursed at her and grabbed her, his brown hands trans­gress­ing her white pu­rity. Last month, ap­par­ently be­cause of this rev­e­la­tion, the Jus­tice De­part­ment opened a new in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Me, I don’t care one way or the other if Don­ham goes to jail. But I’d love to see her be re­quired for the record to fi­nally grap­ple with what she did. Who knows? It might in­spire Amer­ica to do the same.

That there is a need for this is ev­i­denced by the fact that some­one keeps shoot­ing up a sign on the river­bank mark­ing the spot where Till’s body was found. As noted in this space at the time, a stu­dent film­maker found it pocked with dozens of bul­let holes back in 2016. The marker was re­placed in June. This week comes news that some­one has al­ready put new holes in it.

Un­der­stand: You’ve got to go through some trou­ble to shoot up this sign. Ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post, it lies in an iso­lated spot two miles down a gravel road. Ob­vi­ously, some­one has a grudge against it. Ap­par­ently, the truth it tells is still red and raw even now, 23,000 days af­ter the fact.

Granted, that truth is aw­ful. Mean­ing that Amer­ica reg­u­larly con­doned — and, yes, con­dones — the ex­trale­gal killing of black chil­dren. Many of us are un­will­ing to face truths like that, as in a study by the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute, quan­ti­fy­ing that most Repub­li­cans do not be­lieve sig­nif­i­cant racial dis­crim­i­na­tion ex­ists. Which is sad.

This will be a bet­ter na­tion the day we stop ly­ing to our­selves about who we were and what we are, the day we own up to the blood shed, bones splin­tered, sins com­mit­ted and calum­nies told to make Amer­ica “great,” the day we fi­nally find the guts to ad­mit what hap­pened to Em­mett, and to Trayvon and Tamir — and why.

I don’t ex­pect “jus­tice” if Don­ham ends up in court. She has lived into her 80s. Em­mett Till is a teenager for­ever. So there can be no jus­tice.

But truth would be nice. Prob­lem is, for some peo­ple, it would be fright­en­ing, too. Why else, af­ter 23,000 days, does any­one feel com­pelled to go two miles down a hard road to shoot up a sign that speaks only his­tor­i­cal fact? In the process, they turn a re­minder of what Amer­ica was into a mon­u­ment to what Amer­ica too of­ten is, a na­tion un­able or un­will­ing to own up to it­self.

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