I was thinking, as I read some of the commentary about Rev. Wright, that at least some of the people I read didn't seem to realize just how recently African-Americans were literally terrorized on a regular basis; and in that context it occurred to me that I didn't know exactly how old Rev. Wright was. So I looked him up in Wikipedia, and found that he was born in 1941. And it struck me: that would make him the same age as Emmett Till:
"In August of 1955, one year and three months after Brown v. Board of Education, a fourteen-year-old black boy unschooled in the racial customs of the South traveled to Mississippi to visit relatives. With adolescent bravado, he whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. This inadvertent violation of a sacred code of the South cost him his life. Two white men dragged Till from his bed in the dead of night, beat him, and shot him through the head. Three days later his mangled body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River. It was Emmett Till's first visit to the South. Eight days after arriving in Money, Mississippi, where the town line was marked with a sign reading, "Money -- a good place to raise a boy," Emmett Till was dead.
If not for one extraordinary decision of Mamie Till, Emmett's mother, the story may have ended there. At the urging of civil rights leaders, Mamie Till decided to leave the casket open at her son's funeral. She told the mortician not to "fix" her son's face. The world would see what had been done to him. Tens of thousands of people viewed Emmett Till's body, which was on display in a Chicago church for four long days. Gruesome photos of his maimed and distorted face flooded the national and international press. America was shocked out of comfortable complacency, and the Till case became international news. (...)
Till's uncle identified the assailants in court -- the first time a black person had testified against a white in Mississippi, and perhaps in the South. He was forced to leave town. After a five-day trial that made an open mockery of the possibility of justice, the defendants were acquitted. The Bryants celebrated, on camera, with a smile and an embrace."
That's a photo of Emmett Till while he was still alive. To see a photo of what remained of his face -- and photos like this were printed in Jet and circulated around the world -- click here. It's not pleasant to look at, but if you haven't seen it before, you should steel yourself and try.
American Experience did a show on Till's murder, and their website has reminiscences from people like Wright, who were about Till's own age, and black:
"I was a senior at Los Angeles High School in California. It had a profound affect on me because I understood that it could have happened to any of us. It shook my confidence. It was as though terrorists had struck -- but it was terrorists from our own country. It made me want to do everything I could to make sure this event would not happen ever again.
Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., high-profile trial lawyer
My memories are exact -- and parallel those of many others my age -- I felt vulnerable for the first time in my life -- Till was a year younger -- and recall believing that this could easily happen to me -- for no reason at all. I lived in Pennsylvania at the time.
Julian Bond, civil rights leader and chairman, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Emmett Till and I were about the same age. A week after he was murdered... I stood on the corner with a gang of boys, looking at pictures of him in the black newspapers and magazines. In one, he was laughing and happy. In the other, his head was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets and his mouth twisted and broken. His mother had done a bold thing. She refused to let him be buried until hundreds of thousands marched past his open casket in Chicago and looked down at his mutilated body. [I] felt a deep kinship to him when I learned he was born the same year and day I was. My father talked about it at night and dramatized the crime. I couldn't get Emmett out of my mind...
Muhammed Ali, boxer"
The murder of Emmett Till was not particularly unusual. Neither was the fact that the killers, though known to their community, were not brought to justice. (The jury deliberated for 67 minutes; one juror said that "they wouldn't have taken so long if they hadn't stopped to drink pop.") What made it unusual was the actions of Till's family: his mother's decision to have an open casket funeral, and his uncle's decision to testify against his killers in court.
Jeremiah Wright was fourteen when Till was killed. Though he did not live in the South, Jim Crow was in full force there until his early twenties. He was twenty one when George Wallace called for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." He was a few days shy of twenty two when a bomb went off in a Birmingham church, killing four young girls who were at Sunday School, about a month shy of twenty three when Lyndon Johnson finally signed the Civil Rights Act, and almost twenty four when Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
By the time our country got around to guaranteeing voting rights for blacks, Jeremiah Wright had served his country in the Marine Corps for three years, and in the Navy for two more.
One more date, both because it is itself outrageous and because it is something to bear in mind if you should happen to wonder why someone like Rev. Wright might believe that our government caused HIV: when the Tuskegee Study ended in 1972, Rev. Wright was thirty one years old.
I imagine many of you know about the Tuskegee Study, but if you don't: it was a government study designed to see what happened to black men with syphilis when they were not treated. The men enlisted in the study were poor, and often illiterate, sharecroppers in Alabama. There were ethical problems with the study from the start, but the really appalling part came when penicillin became available in the mid-1940s (before then, there were no really good treatments for syphilis.) Once an effective treatment for syphilis became available, the moral thing to do would have been to halt the study and provide penicillin to everyone in it.
This wouldn't have been much of a loss to science: the study was badly designed, and pretty pointless once a treatment had appeared. There had also been a similar study on whites, carried out when no treatments were available, and there was no good reason to think blacks differed significantly from whites in this respect. More to the point, letting syphilis go untreated once a treatment was available is just plain wrong, and even if there had been more benefit to science than there was, that wouldn't have made it OK.
But our government didn't just not treat the men's syphilis. They actually prevented the men in the study from getting treatment on their own. Government researchers let these men sicken and die for twenty five years after an inexpensive and very effective treatment became available. They also let these men's wives become infected, and their children be born with congenital syphilis.
Results from this study were being published throughout this period. It was not a big secret. And, as I said, it was only ended, after public outcry, in 1972. That was forty years after it started, and twenty five years after penicillin became available -- twenty five years during which our government kept a group of its citizens from getting treatment for a fatal, horrific, and contagious disease so that it could watch them die.
Medical researchers often have a harder time winning the trust of African Americans than of most other groups of American citizens. None of the ones I've talked to doubts for a moment that the history of research on African Americans has a lot to do with this.
I'm not saying any of this to defend (or to attack) Rev. Wright. I said what I thought about his remarks here; if anyone wants to talk about what I attack and what I defend, that's the place to go.
I'm saying this because, as I said, a lot of this is more recent than some commenters I've read seem to imagine. For that reason, I thought that one of the many insightful parts of Obama's speech last Tuesday was this:
"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past"
I think that's exactly right. Rev. Wright's views seem to me accurate about America at a point in the past that is more recent than it seems. The problem is that they are static: times have changed, and it's not clear that Rev. Wright's views have always changed with them.
That makes it all the more ironic that some critics of Obama's speech (note: some, not all) suffer from exactly the same flaw: having decided a while back what liberals are like, they don't attend to the evidence of their senses and adjust their views accordingly; they fit us all into a preexisting template, however much they have to strain to do it. What leads someone to hear Obama's speech and say "today, he has embraced the politics of grievance," or "Blame whitey, and raise high the red flag of socialism," is not that dissimilar from the one that led Jeremiah Wright to say, in 2006, that "No black man will ever be considered for president, no matter how hard you run Jesse."
Note: this 9-10 minute Youtube clip of part of the 9/11 sermon, including the bits that have been shown over and over, is worth listening to.