Posted by: skyward | August 29, 2008

Being Black in America: Historical Perspective

MESSAGE TO CARRY ON

In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy, traveled to Mississippi to visit his uncle.  The teen from Chicago had little knowledge of Jim Crow laws in the South  ——— and the fact that the hundreds of blacks had been lynched. 

He whistled at a white female shopkeeper at a local general store.  A few days later, he was kidnapped by the woman’s husband and relatives.  His mutilated body was discovered on the bottom of a river.  Two accused killers stood trial and were swiftly acquitted of the murder.  (Shortly afterward, the accused sold their story to a journalist for $4,000, giving a gruesome account of murdering Emmet.  The verdict itself, however, remained unchanged.)

Years ago, in law school, my classmates and I sat frozen as we watched a video on the killing of Emmett Till in our Racism and Law seminar.  Thinking of this afternoon stirs the long lost memory in me: At their all school meeting, my son’s Pre-K class is to perform a reenactment of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott ignited by Rosa Parks.  Quiet but powerful, Ms. Parks had refused to give up her seat to a while passenger, helping fuel the Civil Rights Movement.

This special event gives all students, from Pre-K to fifth grade, to express their appreciation of  Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy through music, plays, and poetry.  As I hold my breath, the fourteen Pre-K children march in, carrying handmade signs with phrases such as “Unfair Law!” and “Boycott!”, wearing black armbands with Dr. King’s pictures, and singing We Shall Overcome, a key anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.  In the background stands a bus made of cardboard.  Two teachers give narratives of the social and historical background of the boycott while the children occasionally add to that dialogue.

Preparing for the performance, the five-year-olds have had the opportunity to explore racial inequality as well as its social and emotional impact.  For instance, studying a photo of two separate drinking fountains, side-by-side, marked “Colored” and “White”, the children said to one another: Isn’t it silly that the same water flowed through two different fountains for different colored people?  

Racism struck a chord with them especially when they recognized that the white-only policy would have banned some of their own teachers and friends from the school community.  My own half-Japanese son would have been banned himself.

The students beam with pride as the audience rewards them with enthusiastic applause.  The Pre-K performace reminds me that we, as parents and adults, all have messages to carry on —–to share with future generations, to educate and enlighten them, and to encourage and inspire them to pursue the tasks we may, unfortunately, leave behind. 

When Emmett’s killers were acquitted by an all-white jury, the local media jubilantly announced the verdict, and the white community passionately embraced it.  Mamie Till held an open-casket funeral for her son, wanting the world to witness what had happened to her only child.  Emmett’s death will remain senseless unless society strives for equality ——I tell myself, thinking of the life lost in the sweltering heat of Mississippi.

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