By Roland S. Martin
“One of these mothers from Connecticut should do an Emmett Till moment; show the picture of their child dead in the classroom.”
That’s a text I received earlier this week from my TV One show producer. When I got it, a chill immediately went through my body just thinking about the possibility of seeing the carnage in such a photo.
When taping this week’s edition of my show, “Washington Watch,” Sirius/XM Radio host Joe Madison somberly said the same thing. Joe remarked that Emmett’s mother, Mamie, insisted on an open casket for her son so the world could see what was done to him by racists in Mississippi.
Many Americans may not even remember Emmett Till, a precocious 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago who went to visit his family in Mississippi. He allegedly flirted with a white woman in a store, and the woman’s husband and his brother later went to the home where Till was staying, pulled him out of his bed, took him somewhere and beat him to a pulp, gouged out his eye, blew the back of his head away with a gun, attached a cotton gin with barbed wire around his neck and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.
When his bloated and disfigured body was recovered, it was unrecognizable. He was identified based on a ring he always wore.
When Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender newspaper published his battered face on their covers, it sent shock waves throughout America, and especially in the black community. The brutality of lynchings were talked about and covered, yet for the world to witness with its own eyes the end result of vicious bigotry, it forced the nation to examine its conscience.
“There was just no way I could describe what was in that box,” Mamie said. “No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”
In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, mass shooting, we have seen numerous photos of the beautiful, smiling faces of the 20 children and six adults slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The images we have become accustomed to include them singing at a piano, sporting the gear of a favorite sports team and others. When we think of them being memorialized it’s in the context of teddy bears, candles and flowers.
Americans want to remember them as vibrant and fun-loving children, but will that actually shake the conscience of America to do something about how they were gunned down in the classroom?
What if one of the mothers or fathers of the Newtown 20 demanded that police give them a crime scene photo of their child and they chose to show it to the world? Can you imagine a modern day Mamie Till Mobley, wracked with pain but filled with resolve to show the nation so they could bear witness to what hate did to their child?
I can tell you that I’ve talked to numerous black men and women who to this day remember August 28, 1955, the day Till was murdered. The image of his face has been seared into their brain for life as a result of seeing that photo.
Is that what Americans need today? Maybe so.
For too many of us, we hear about gun violence, we talk about it, we mourn it, but to be honest, we’ve never witnessed it.
Our senses have been dulled to the real world carnage. We demand that news organizations not show American troops, or even the enemy, lying dead in war zones. Even when our troops returned home in flag-draped coffins, the Bush administration forbade it from being covered by the media. The Los Angeles Times was ripped by readers for showing the bloody, lifeless body of Ambassador Christopher Stevens being dragged out of a building in Benghazi, Libya.
What does that say about America? Oh, let’s talk about tragedy, but please, please, please don’t show the real results.
We love blood and guts in our movies, preferring exploding heads, chests ripped open by gunfire. We adore the big explosions, bodies flying through the air, buildings tumbling down. We’ll drop millions of dollars collectively on movies and video games to see the carnage, but God forbid we are forced to see it in real life.
That’s America. The land of make believe. Show us the fake stuff, but let’s retreat into a fetal position and scream, “No! No! No!” when forced to see the real thing.
When my producer sent me that text, I recoiled at even the mere mention of seeing with my own eyes the real life results of what a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle could do to a 6-year-old body. But maybe I should see it. Maybe Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association should have to answer to such a photo when he is interviewed.
Maybe if a modern day Mamie Till met with members of Congress and forced them to look at a photo of her baby, then we would see some political courage.
Maybe if all Americans had to bear witness to such a photo, we would stop ignoring the violence equivalent to the Newtown massacres that is happening in Chicago, New Orleans and other cities across this country.
Gun violence is a national epidemic. It affects all ages and races. Maybe it’s time for America to see the results of what our gun culture has wrought. Enough with our delicate sensibilities. If we truly want to confront the problem, then we’d better have the guts to see the problem.
When we’ve had such tragedies in the past, there was always an initial outcry, and then we’d settle back into our routines.
When that image of Emmett Till was shown to the world, it stirred up such a burning desire for justice inside African-Americans that it was a part of the foundation of the civil rights movement. Just one year later the Montgomery bus boycott began, and many African-Americans will tell you that Till’s gruesome lynching was the catalyst.
Till’s death was the moment that led to a movement, and 57 years later, we still talk about his death, largely because of that photo.
Maybe the only way Newtown never leaves our conscience and fades away like Aurora or Columbine is if we have to look at the results of the tragedy to ensure that this moment leads to a transformational movement.