Emmett Till (Collateral Damage III)

Emmett Till. 16 x 20". Oil on canvas. By Cat Jones

Emmett Till.
16 x 20″.
Oil on canvas.
By Cat Jones

I just finished this one, for the Collateral Damage collection. The intention with this one is to show this child, in a pose of innocent expectation (from a photograph taken shortly before he was killed), smiling and unaware of what awaited… against the looming and shadowy background of racial hatred and evil that he did not even realize he was up against. This child’s murder was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, and my hope is that something in this painting might move its audience to recognize that the forces at work in the background then are moving again through backgrounds (and foregrounds) now. I want you to want to be on the right side of history right now. I want you to save the next child who is, even now, smiling innocently into a lens somewhere… While the KKK is looming in the background. (The models for the hooded klansmen? Ignorant cowards who were preparing to attend a pro-Trump “victory” march. Don’t pretend this isn’t happening. It is.)

Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. He was from Chicago, but went on a trip with his great uncle to visit cousins in Mississippi. His mother had reportedly warned Emmett, before he left, to be cautious down south, as the climate of violent racism was much different there than what he was accustomed to in the north.

On August 24, 1955, 3 days after arriving in Mississippi, Emmett and his cousin went with some friends to a local market to buy candy, and possibly on a dare from the other boys, Emmett allegedly  whistled at Carolyn Bryant, who owned the store along with her husband, Roy. Roy Bryant had been out of town at the time of this encounter, but when he returned days later and heard about it, he became enraged. On August 28, Roy Bryant and his brother John Milam showed up in the pre-dawn darkness, dragged Emmett from his uncle’s home, took him to a plantation barn, and pistol whipped him. They drove around with him in the back of their pickup, stopping to beat him repeatedly throughout the night, until witnesses noticed blood pouring from the pickup (Bryant told them he’d shot a deer).

Eventually, they shot the child to death, weighted down his body, and threw him into the Tallahatchie River.

Despite overwhelming evidence and dozens of witnesses, Bryant and Milam were acquitted of kidnapping and murder the following month. A year later, both Bryant and Milam luridly admitted, in an interview in Look magazine, that they killed Emmett. In their view, he was too uppity for his skin color, and they believed they were justified in what they did.

Milam told the interviewer, “I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights.” (Look magazine, 1956.)

(Sound familiar? In the wake of the 2016 election, it certainly does to me.) Due to double jeopardy laws, neither Bryant nor Milam ever faced any jail time for what they did, even after publicly admitting to the crime.

Again, Emmett Till was 14 years old at the time that these men dragged him from his uncle’s home and killed him.

This is the kind of world we are complicit in building, when we allow racism and ignorance to again flourish in our culture. We tell ourselves we are not to blame for these things, because they happened at the hands of others; we are merely members of a large and impersonal group, this violence is far removed from us. “Collateral damage.” Not our fault. And we think we can just turn away from it.

But collateral damage is never just accidental. You know this is happening. Pretending otherwise doesn’t change it. So long as you do nothing, you are complicit. Get out there, my friend. And DO something. Because the writing is on the wall again, and you know it.


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