I was artist-in-residence at Washington Irving School for over a decade. At a school assembly circa 1990, my friend Roy Chappell, one of the first Tuskegee Airmen in history, sat on the stage and talked to my kids. Roy told about the racism he endured in Alabama and in the war (from white soldiers).
An African American boy raised his hand and said, “Why’d you let those white people treat you like that? I’d of killed them. I wouldn’t be no slave, either.” Roy doubled over with laughter. “Son,” Roy said, “you have no idea.”
Boys are cocky. Inner city boys in particular. It’s a defense mechanism, and it can drive a fearful parent to drink and a teacher to distraction. A good teacher will patiently guide his or her students through factual history, not the myths of white historians, of founding of this country. Speaking from long experience, theater is an excellent way to enhance the learning experience. My life was profoundly changed as were the lives of many of my students.
Another cocky Chicago Black kid named Emmett learned a different kind of lesson in August 1955. His family had sent him to the delta town of Money, Mississippi to stay with relatives and get a respite from the city. (Martyr George Jackson, Letters from Soledad, also a cocky Chicago kid, would spend his summers with aunties who lived in and around Mt. Vernon, Illinois, my birthplace. My grandmother called him Georgie.)
One day, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till and his cousin walked into a white-owned country store to get snacks. The store clerk, a twenty-one-year-old woman named Carolyn Bryant was noticed by Emmett, and according to the cousin, he whistled at Ms. Bryant. Cocky city kid flirting with a Mississippi cute white lady in her store, what could be the harm?
Several nights later Emmett was kidnapped from his great-grandfather’s house by two men, tortured, and shot in the head, and his body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Carolyn Bryant’s husband Roy and another man were arrested and brought to trial. They were found not guilty by an all-white jury. (The killers admitted to the crime in a 1956 Look magazine interview, for which they received four thousand dollars, but authorities still did not arrest them. Both are now deceased.)
Emmett’s mutilated body lay in an open casket in a church in Chicago. His mother insisted that the body be displayed as it had been found in the river. Thousands of mourners walked by the once cocky Black boy’s body. It was a national news story, and it influenced the civil rights movement. In 2007, the Justice Department once again took up the Till murder case, to no avail.
Until now, only thoughts and prayers were being uttered for cocky Black boys. It was announced Wednesday that a forgotten folder in a discarded box of old records in the Laflore County, Mississippi courthouse, was dug out by researchers of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, and documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp. In the folder was a warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant. The warrant was announced in 1955, but a sheriff, claiming he didn’t want to bother Mrs. Bryant, a mother of two kids, stuck the warrant in a box and stashed it away.
That warrant, according to authorities is valid today. The researchers feel that accumulated evidence gathered over decades would now indict eighty-seven-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham (she remarried), alive and living in North Carolina.
“Serve it and charge her,” said Terri Watts, a relative of Emmett.
Germany and Israel over the years have arrested elderly Nazis and jailed or assassinated them. Emmet Till’s story is being swept out of history classes by the far-right Republican push to deny history. Teacher are being threatened and so are school districts. Nazis are among us.
Will the law now “bother” little old Mrs. Donham?