Cornel West on Emmit Till and 9-11

democracy now

For me, one of the great moments of American culture actually occurred in August of 1955. Very few people want to talk about it. 1955, of course, Emmit Till was murdered by fellow citizens, a victim of U.S. Terrorism. The body was found in the Yazoo river under the Tallahatchie bridge, but his body was brought back to Chicago, and the first major Civil Rights demonstration took place. 125,000 fellow citizens walked by to take a look at Emmit Till. His mother left the coffin open so they could see. It was at Pilgrim Baptist Church, led by the Reverend Julius Caesar Austin. He introduced Mamie Till, Mobely. She walked to the lectern. She looked over at her baby whose head was five times the size of his normal head. Then she looked in the eyes of America as well as the folk at south side Chicago, she said what — I don’t have a minute to hate, I’m going to pursue justice for the rest of my life. That’s a level of spiritual maturity and moral maturity that does not give up on the Socratic attempt to interrogate the mendacity and hypocrisy of American life, but is rooted in something deep. It’s rooted in an attempt to keep track of the humanity of the very people who have dehumanized you.

Use that as a standard of responding to terrorism in light of the last two-and-a-half years. My, gosh. How fascinating. Here is Mamie Mobely, speaking on her behalf and speaking for the best of tradition, Martin King’s in the background. Fanny Lou Hamer’s voice is there A. Phillip Randolph’s voice was there. And many nameless and anonymous black leaders who knew they had to deal with a situation in which they were unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated for who they were. That’s what it meant to be a nigger. Unsafe, unprotected, subject to unjustified violence and hated. Now, after September 11, all Americans feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated. You say, hmm, now that the whole nation has been ‘niggerized,’ let’s see what the response is going to be… interesting.

I come from a tradition that says in the face of terrorism, it’s justice, not sweet revenge. Not short term retaliation. It’s justice. Hunt them down if they have committed a crime, yes. Demonize, no. And even within the black tradition, if there are black folk who demonize, they are criticized based on that tradition in light of their not aspiring to the standards of Emmit Till’s mother. And if that’s the case, that certainly the case for George Bush and other leaders. Crucial, indispensable, bringing together the best of the legacy of Athens, and the best of the legacy of Jerusalem, but in the new world context in which legacies of slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, police brutality, lynching, discrimination, red-lining in blank loans, on and on and on, always connecting one’s vision about one’s own freedom to the plight and predicament of others. Sisters of all colors, gay brothers, lesbians sisters, physically challenged, indigenous brothers and sisters, so that they all constitute overlapping and intertwining traditions of struggle. But knowing that the courage that they critically — and the courage to love I think we need to talk publicly about the courage to love. That’s what I love about the best of the Black Freedom Movement.

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