Of Many Things
One of my first activities on arriving at America House each morning involves a pair of scissors. An inveterate clipper, I keep an eye out for newspaper articles that deal with the kinds of social justice matters that are my focus for the magazine. The clippings are then filed according to issues like incarceration, hunger, homelessness and related themes—dark subjects, but they point to the nation’s need for a justice as yet unachieved.
Another group, though, is labeled “Miscellaneous.” Here are clippings that somehow struck me as possessing significance when I cut them out. Going through them recently, I came across two that I realized might be the beginning of another category—racism. A New York Times article from last fall concerned the three young civil rights workers who were killed in 1964 while working as volunteers in a drive to register voters in Mississippi. Stopped for an alleged traffic violation and briefly jailed, on their release the three were trailed by Ku Klux Klansmen, who pulled them over and gunned them down. Their bodies were found two months later buried in an earthen dam. For these premeditated murders, the longest sentence meted out was six years. Federal authorities determined that local law enforcement officers had themselves conspired with the K.K.K. to commit the murders and then attempted to cover them up.
The article includes photographs of the young men. They resemble college yearbook photos, gazing at the camera with expressions both innocent and thoughtful. One of the men, Andrew Goodman, was in fact a student at a college in Queens, N.Y. The story itself was about a small plot of ground on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that in the mid-1960’s had been named Freedom Place in honor of the three men. A sidewalk plaque disappeared years ago. Community groups gained permission from the city to build a memorial there in the early 1990’s, but none has yet appeared. Andrew’s mother, interviewed for the piece, is quoted as saying that she still thinks the memorial is a good idea: “All the things that Andrew Goodman lived and died for are still important today.” How true.
The second and more recent clipping—again, it was just instinct that led me to keep it, though now I see that the two go together—is an obituary of Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmet Till. Emmet, an African American boy of 14, was beaten to death by a gang of white men for supposedly whistling at a white woman. His murder occurred nine years before that of the civil rights workers, in the same state of Mississippi. At his funeral, Mrs. Mobley deliberately ordered the coffin left open so viewers could see the terrible wounds inflicted on her child’s body. For the following four decades, the obituary noted, she spoke out against racial injustice. Echoing to some extent what Andrew Goodman’s mother had said, Mrs. Mobley believed that her son’s death was not in vain. And, remarkably, she was quoted in the clipping as stating, “I have not spent one minute hating.”
Emmet Till and the three civil rights workers fell victim to racism in its most virulent form, and although such blatant examples are seldom seen today, it would be a mistake to think that racism itself has faded much from the American scene. We see it now in subtler forms, like housing discrimination and racial profiling. We also see it in a criminal justice system that is strongly tilted against African Americans. Blacks convicted of killing whites, for example, are far more likely than whites to be sentenced to death. But now at least, some legislators and governors have begun to call for moratoriums on executions as increasing evidence of racial bias comes to light.
This summer marked the anniversaries of the deaths of both Andrew Goodman and his two companions, and of Emmet Till. It would be an appropriate time to reflect on the lives of all four, and on the racial justice that still awaits realization in the United States.