This past week, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation establishing the new Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Monument, a symbolic move that one can only hope is indicative of further action. Moments like this are often bittersweet in my mind. I am deeply thankful that the memorial exists. Yet monuments best express aspirational pursuits: often, a monument portrays through an imposing physical presence the person/people that you want to be. This monument has the potential to communicate the opposite: instead it portrays us as we are and it will hopefully keep us from forgetting that fact. This did present me with a profound opportunity though. How does a US president in 2023 refer to the history of lynching in America, especially with an eye toward what we can learn from it?
For those unaware, the White House outlined the context of Till’s murder rather well. 14 year old Emmett was brutally tortured and murdered by the husband and brother-in-law of Carolyn Bryant, a woman whose testimony ultimately killed him. Frustratingly, we don’t really know what transpired and we may never know, as Bryant died a few months ago. Emmett Till’s story is especially tragic as well as emblematic of the regime of lynching. All of the elements of the story remind the learner of the terroristic elements of racialized lynching in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: the fact that the age of the accused has no effect on the brutality visited upon him, the weaponization of white womanhood, the trumping up of sexual charges in order to foment violence, the ways in which violence is necessary to enforce an unjust status quo…the themes are legion. So then in American memory, what place does this event hold?
The end of the first paragraph of the proclamation is that the places where these monuments will be found will be
“places where we can learn about and reflect on the specific, painful events that ended Emmett Till’s life and the larger history of Black oppression, resistance and resilience, which ultimately culminated in a movement that bent our Nation’s laws toward justice.”
I will be nit-picky, if only because I think it is imperative that racial violence be understood in our history and present as the profound evil that it is. Once again, I’m very thankful for the symbol. I always want symbols to be backed with material action and I look forward to the creative work that will hopefully be precipitated by the erecting of these monuments. But I have some quibbles.
First, events did not end Brother Emmett’s life. Two men did, specifically two men who gave a paid interview to Look magazine, confessing to the murder along with a number of accomplices. Like many other lynchings in American history, Till’s happened at the hands “of persons unknown”. The human element of racial violence must never be forgotten: narratives do not kill people, though they contribute to the rationales that people tell themselves to justify killing. Situations do not kill people. Circumstances do not kill people. People, especially racist people, shaped by all of these elements, kill people and must be held accountable. As incendiary as the word “racist” is, we must understand, race lies, steals, and kills by its very logic. Brother Emmett is one of the many casualties of the construction and its mobilization, a teenager who found himself rent by the often indiscriminate buckshot from the barrel of Jim Crow.
Secondly, Till’s death is often rightly linked to the launching of the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. It is less helpful, however, to see the movement for Black liberation as culminating in the 50s and 60s, as though that designates a climax. There is only one way to go from the summit: downhill. This national narrative, however, allows people to look at the events of the 60s and rest in their accomplishments. The legal dismantling of Jim Crow, at least in the South, is a great boon, yes, but as the same Dr. King quoted later in the proclamation made clear in the last few years of his life, racism in the North was just as pervasive, if not more insidious. Democratic Socialist that he was, King recognized that the issue at the root of racism was often money and economic exploitation and thus the most effective way to resist and defang it was to hit it at its heart. Giving King’s legacy its due, however, is difficult if we do not see the problem as he saw it.
But the Dr. King quote later in the proclamation is a good one. King said,
While the blame for the grisly mutilation of Till has been placed upon two cruel men, the ultimate responsibility for this and other tragic events must rest with the American people themselves. It rests with all of us, black and white, who call ourselves civilized men. For democracy demands responsibility, courage, and the will-to-freedom from all men.
King’s words rightfully remind us what the history of racial violence really speaks to: national identity. When we ask the question of who we are, one thing that must enter into that answer is our consistent, often racialized, violence. This violence plagues both our past and our present, whether in the “fast” violence of lynching or the “slow” violence by which hunger and homelessness kill men, women and children of all races.
It is this fact that is the fundamental reason why I am always baffled and offended, as a pastor and a historian, by claims that the United States is, has been or will be a Christian nation. When I consider the faith, I think of the Savior. I consider a consistently non-violent ethic. I consider the constant presence of repentance as definitional of the Christian life. And yet, as I survey the history of this nation, I am struck much more by the logic of empire, as Antonio Gonzalez calls it, than I am by the presence of the logic of the Kingdom of God. Mamie Till and others like her are lionized in our history as “carrying a message of healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and hope” but my hope is for a future where the wounds are no longer ripped open. Unfortunately that day has not yet come.
This then is a question of national memory and of patriotism. I’m not opposed to either. Remember our past. Be proud of our opportunities. But do not do so foolishly, uncritically, or with the assumption that everyone has access to those things that we sometimes arrogantly call rights. There are still many in our midst fighting for that which we take for granted. At the Anxious Bench, we’re reflecting on various aspects of Christian Nationalism but I am firmly of the view that no modern nation, insofar as it continues to use and justify the primary weapon of the state, violence, has the right to robustly claim connection with the Savior. The history of race in America is also, as critical race theorists remind us, the history of the law: laws like the 1664 Maryland slave law (All Negroes and other slaves already within the Province and all Negroes and other slaves to bee hereafter imported into the Province shall serve Durante Vita) which along with other laws across the colonies cemented the connection between the construction of “the Negro” and economic exploitation. That violent connection was one precipitated by greed but enforced by the state. That is not merely unChristian; it is anti-Christian.
It is best for us to be clear minded about ourselves, our history, our present and our future. Rather than taking a rosy picture of our past and present in order to coast into a rosy future, let us be relentless in our dissection of our past, relentless in our reckoning and relentless in our repentance. Only then will we have a modicum of peace.