In deciding to run the grisly photo of Emmett Till in his coffin, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, the photo has tremendous cultural significance to our nation’s civil rights struggle. Rosa Parks reportedly said that she saw Till’s disfigured face in her mind’s eye in the second she decided not to give up her seat on the bus.
On the other hand, our fascination with the photo seems tinged with perversity. It reminds me of my reaction, as a child, to the illustrations in Fox’s Book of Martyrs. (My father was a Protestant minister, and the book was in his library.) My brothers and I pored over the pictures of suffering Christian martyrs, tied to the stake, pierced by arrows, menaced by lions. My mother tried to explain that the martyrs were willingly dying to make a religious point. But we were less interested in the martyrs’ motivations than in the torturers’ and executioners’. We were struck by the odd grins on the faces of the tormentors and the bystanders. My mother’s final response to this continued fascination was to hide the book.
I also remember a photo, depicting a lynching in the South during the 1930s, that echoes what I saw in Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Three charred bodies hang from trees. Below them are relaxed smiling white people, looking for all the world as though they are at a church picnic.
Is there a connection between the suffering of deliberate martyrs, dying for their religious beliefs, and the suffering of African-Americans at the hands of racists? Today, Emmett Till is widely accepted as a martyr in the cause of racial freedom. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, said of his death, “I saw Emmett and his scars, Lord, I saw the stigma of Jesus. The spirit spoke to me as plainly as I’m talking to you now. Jesus has come and died that we might have a right to eternal life or eternal hell or damnation. Emmett had died that men might have freedom here on Earth.” But Till was only 14 years old, a Chicago kid in a Mississippi culture strange to him and dangerous beyond his comprehension. His martyrdom (but not his death) seems accidental.
To me, the real mystery is the motivation of the people who kept silent despite knowing who killed Emmett Till and then celebrated when the murderers were acquitted. Did they somehow believe that the natural order of things was being restored? I still don’t understand those grins.