Saturday, January 18, 2003

Eschaton, Fair and Balanced

Talk Left reminds us that PBS is broadcasting the Murder of Emmett Tilll.

There is some controversy about this case, however. Not everyone agrees with the standard view of this murder case. Here at Eschaton we always strive to present both sides of an issue. So, after visiting Talk Left to read about it, you can read the alternative interpretation by Moonie Times reporter/Assistant National Editor Robert Stacy McCain as posted to the Free Republic under his pseudonym BurkeCalhounDabney (culled from a few different posts on the subject, which are separated by dashes):

[W]hatever happened in that grocery store, it was something more than Till merely "whistling at a white woman." Please note that the store was also the home of Bryant's family.

Now, I have been repeatedly accused of "minimizing" or "justifying" Till's death, which was not at all my purpose. I was complaining -- go back to Post and look -- about the way the Post article was minimizing, if I may use the word, what transpired between Till and Carolyn Bryant. The Saturday article, echoing the liberal myth of Emmett Till, suggested that all he had done was "whistle at a white woman." But he had done substantially more than that. He had gone into the Bryants' place of business -- into their family home, no less -- and insulted the wife of the proprietor, had made "lewd advances," as Carolyn Bryant testified under oath, and then boasted about this to all his friends.

Roy Bryant's response to this provocation was brutal and criminal, certainly. Whatever the opposite of "railroaded" might be, that would be a fair description of the acquittal of Bryant and Milam. But in what sense can Emmett Till's mother justify describing her son as "a sacrifical lamb"? And, in the larger view, how has Emmett Till come to be a demigod in the civil rights pantheon? What perverted sort of "social justice" includes the right to enter a man's home and insult his wife?

If you would stop pointing fingers and calling names long enough to think seriously about these questions, perhaps you could understand what I'm trying to say.


I am not justifying anything. I was trying to make two major points:

1. Till was not killed merely for "whistling at a white woman." That phrase has attached itself to Till's name, suggesting that he was killed as the result of some casual encounter on the street -- which is simply not true.

2. Till's killers were the husband and brother-in-law of the woman whom Till insulted. It wasn't the Klan. It wasn't a racist mob. It wasn't some evil redneck sheriff. This was a personal crime, rather than a public crime.

To repeat what I have said in earlier posts: Emmett Till was not killed at random for the crime of being black. He was not hanged on the public square for advocating nonviolent social change. He was kidnapped and murdered by two men who felt that he had personally wronged them.

The point here is not to provide a "justification" for this crime. Rather, the point is to say that the meaning of Till's death has been distorted by propagandists who wish to use Emmett Till as a symbol of civil rights. I am saying that the facts of the case simply do not support that interpretation. While the acquittal of Till's killers said something about the unfairness of the criminal justice system in Mississippi, Till's death itself did not exemplify the values which some have attributed to it.

Was Emmett Till wrongly murdered? Of course. But thousands of Americans are murdered every year. Being a victim of murder, however, does not qualify one for sainthood.

Till's mother said her son was a "sacrificial lamb." But this construction wrongly imputes innocence and religious purpose to the victim. Till was not innocent. He was not merely walking down the street one day, selected at random, and killed simply because he was black. Till in fact was killed in response to his own action, by two men whose interest in him was specific and personal. Emmett Till was not killed while sitting in at a Woolworth's lunch counter or marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge or engaged in any other act of civil disobedience. Emmett Till was not killed as the result of his quest for civil rights, unless you consider insulting women to be a civil right.

The horrific nature of Emmett Till's death -- kidnapped at gunpoint rom his relative's home in the dark of night, tortured and murdered -- is not at issue. What is at issue is whether Till was a hero or martyr. Given the circumstances, I find it impossible to consider him such, and question whether any other rational person could do so.


Was Till's killing racially motivated? Certainly, at least in part -- just as Till's initial action toward Carolyn Bryant was racially motivated. Till thought he could impress his relatives and friends by defying the customs of rural Mississippi. He succeeded too well. Roy Bryant returned home to find that Till's insulting behavior toward his wife was the talk of the community. Not merely was this a challenge to Bryant's personal honor, but to the peculiar community standards of that place and time. Roy Bryant either had to do something about Till, or become a pariah and/or a laughingstock in his community.

Now, it is likely that no would wish to return to the community standards and customs that apertained in rural Mississippi in 1955, when the Bryant brothers could kill Emmett Till and be judged not guilty by a jury of their peers. But Emmett Till's insult to Carolyn Bryant was a personal wrong, and the murder of Emmett Till was a very personal murder. He was not a martyr for "civil rights," unless you consider it a civil right to insult women.

If you're bored you can write Andrew Sullivan and noted civil rights expert Jonah Goldberg and ask them what they think of their co-worker.

UPDATE: Just wanted to add that all of Mr. McCain's posts on the Free Republic were pulled hours after Mike Signorile's article was published. So, you'll have to take my word for it.