The murders in Newtown, Connecticut bring fourteen-year-old Emmett Till to mind.
Till was murdered in the town of Money, Mississippi in August 1955. Some say this was the spark that started the civil rights movement. Less than six months after the Till murder, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and she later said young Till was on her mind that day.
Of course, no single incident started the great freedom struggle. The founding of the NAACP in 1909, A. Phillip Randolph’s organizing for equal employment policies during the Second World War, and Rosa Parks’s own brave moment were all important watersheds, among many others. But if countless remembrances are to be believed—everyone from Muhammad Ali to Bob Dylan—the Till murder was one of those “Oh My God” moments that forced many Americans, black and white, to think about race and justice.
A south side Chicago lad, Till took the Illinois Central down to Mississippi to spend a couple of weeks with his mother’s family. For a city boy, hanging out with his cousins, helping them tend cotton crops, swimming and fishing, and playing checkers in front of a crossroads store were all exotic fun. But it was at that same little grocery store in Money that young Till whistled at a white woman, and got himself killed for it.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t know the codes. His mother coached him on “southern etiquette,” about how to avoid violating the rules and customs of the Jim Crow South. Besides, Chicago, with its rigidly segregated neighborhoods and job discrimination, was no racial paradise. Who knows what he was thinking—just a high-spirited kid having a little fun. But it wasn’t funny for the woman’s husband or brother-in-law. For them, Till was not a boy but a man—he was a big kid, old enough to be a farm laborer if the family hadn’t left Mississippi—and they learned about his violation through the grapevine.
Insolence: a black outsider challenging white male privilege. He had to be taught a lesson, so the brothers beat him and shot him and weighted his body down and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury took an hour to find them innocent.
No, this was not the moment when the scales fell from people’s eyes, but it was a crucial one nonetheless. The image of Till’s battered face would not go away, has not gone away yet. “Let the world see what they did to my child,” Emmett’s mother Mamie told the press as she refused to let the undertaker prettify her son, then allowed photographers into the funeral. That image only grew clearer, more horrifying, as the years passed and the atrocities of Selma and Birmingham and Cicero mounted.
I had dinner with friends the night of the Newtown shootings, all of us middle-aged, white college professors. One, who emigrated to America thirty years ago from Ukraine, was puzzled by our sad insistence that nothing could be done. Nope, the NRA boys are too well organized, the public too indifferent, the politicians too craven.
But this past weekend, I kept thinking about Emmett Till. His murderers insisted that they merely upheld their family honor and the southern way of life. Till’s killers and their ilk argued that murdering children to defend an abstraction—the ideal of racial purity—was their patriotic right and duty. And it was then that something started to change for many people. Yes, the white South dug in its heels, and it took many more such moments to hammer down American apartheid, but those walls had been weakened, and they finally fell.
Despite the differences, the killings in Connecticut might turn out to have a similar impact, might allow us to begin stanching the flood of American gun violence. In both cases, children’s blood was spilled for abstract ideals that don’t bear close examination. The NRA will mostly be quiet for a while, but soon they’ll be back at it, talking about guns and freedom.
Freedom? I’m enough of an originalist to point out that there is no constitutional guarantee to own assault weapons; besides, no one is talking about limiting access to guns for hunting, target practice, or even to defend one’s property, just military-style gear. Protecting our homes? I’m sure Mrs. Lanza’s arsenal made her feel much safer; turns out she was wrong, and twenty-six others paid for her mistake. Individualism? What does that even mean? Is there no countervailing argument that for thousands of years, humans have measured individual rights against social needs, that the frontier is long passed and it’s a good thing it is?
Finally, it is the bridge too far that unites both stories. We will kill a black child for whistling at a white woman, and thereby defend our way of life. We will defend our way of life by not tolerating any limits on the weapons an American may possess, even if the slaughter of innocents results.
I’ve not seen images of those children’s bodies. How many parents would have the courage to do what Mamie Till Mobley did, to say, “Let the world see what they did to my child”? But Ms. Mobley helped change the world, and her courage made it possible that young Emmett did not die in vain.
Elliott Gorn teaches history at Loyola University, Chicago