Editorial in the Financial Mail: No Healing without justice..

and Truth


Shirley de Viliers

March 18, 2022

Last week, a curious piece of legislation was passed in the US, making lynching a federal hate crime for the first time. That it took so long to pass is indicative of a deeply fractured society



There’s not much to see on Money Road, the artery that runs through the village of Money, Mississippi (population 100). Google Maps shows a smattering of buildings, a restored petrol station and a quartet of silos. Sandwiched between them is the marker for Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market – a derelict ruin, slowly being reclaimed by nature. Nearby, a Mississippi Freedom Trail plaque marks the site.

Emmett Till was just 14 when he walked into Bryant’s on August 24 1955 to buy bubblegum. Seven days later his bloated, mutilated body would be fished from the nearby Tallahatchie River. An autopsy by the FBI in 2005 would reveal a broken femur, two fractured wrists, and “extensive and dramatic fractures of the skull, [and] metallic fragments identified in the cranium”.

Till had been kidnapped from his great-uncle’s home in the early hours of August 28 by the grocery store proprietor, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother JW Milam. He’d been beaten and shot in the head; a fan had been lashed to his neck with barbed wire to weigh him down, and his body dumped in the Tallahatchie. His crime? Carolyn Bryant, Bryant’s 21-year-old wife, had accused him of flirting with her when she sold him gum.

Till’s story is not unknown. His brutal death helped galvanise the civil rights movement in the US after his mother insisted on an open casket to show the world the brutality he had endured. But justice has remained elusive….

…as recently as last week, Till’s family was calling for the case to be reopened.

So it may be cold comfort to them that an antilynching bill set for US President Joe Biden’s signature carries his name. The Emmett Till Antilynching Bill, passed by Congress last Monday, will mean lynching can be prosecuted as a federal crime when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or serious injury. Once signed into law, it will allow for a maximum sentence of 30 years – up from 10 years currently for hate crimes where death, kidnapping and sexual abuse aren’t involved.

It’s astounding that it’s taken quite so long. The first such bill was proposed back in 1900 – 55 years before Till’s murder. Since then, there have been about 200 attempts to formalise lynching as a federal hate crime, most recently as 2020. Equally astonishing is that even now three members of the House of Representatives voted against passage of the bill.

…It’s one of numerous attempts by civil society to commemorate the lives so senselessly – so criminally – lost. Another such project is artist Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series. Since 2000, he’s been collecting and digitally manipulating photographs of lynchings, removing the victims’ bodies from the frame. The rationale, he says on his website, is that “by erasing the victim’s body I hoped to create a visual experience that would force the viewer to focus on the crowd, and in doing so, to address the underlying racism and bias that was so foundational to many of these acts of collective violence”.

It’s a chilling catalogue of indifference, hatred, bloodlust, racism and banality. And ever so powerful in forcing an examination of the kind of society that allows such atrocity to occur; that encourages it. The very origin of some of Gonzales-Day’s materials is disturbingly sanguinary. Take the 1916 lynching of 17-year-old Jesse Washington, for example. Photographer Fred Gildersleeve took pictures of the entire affair to generate the macabre memorial postcards people would buy for about 10c a pop.

If Gonzales-Day’s works turn the gaze on the complicit population, the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project sets out to restore the dignity of victims by naming each. Detailed in Clint Smith’s thoughtful essay in The Atlantic (also containing Gonzales-Day’s photographs), the project sees communities fill jars with soil from the approximate sites where victims were lynched while telling their stories. Each jar is labelled with the victim’s name, and put on display in the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery. It’s heartbreakingly poignant.

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