From the archives, Father John LaFarge on the murder of Emmett Till

John LaFarge, S.J., former editor in chief of America, wrote frequently about issues of racial justice for America and was a leader in the fight for civil rights, appearing on the dais with Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech. This essay from the archives uses some dated language, but conveys his passion for the cause of civil rights.   

Few courtroom incidents in the last couple of decades have so upset public opinion in the United States as the acquittal on September 24 by an all-white Mississippi jury of the two white men charged with the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Negro boy. The event revealed two quite contrary things.


The conduct of the trial was agreeably, one might say hopefully, different from the scandalous scenes that accompanied some former historic cases where Southern race issues were concerned. The State prosecutor gave every evidence of attempting to obtain a conviction, and the judge set a fine example of dignity, fairness and restraint.

Circuit Judge Curtis M. Swango, who presided, made it clear, according to John H. Popham, special correspondent to the New York Times, that there was only one policy for all before the court. One Southern newspaper man remarked: "The South has always had its Judge Swangos. That's why we keep faith in the future." The State officials had to do the best they could in the face of a deplorable lack of law-enforcement machinery: lack of funds for the prosecution and crippling local rivalries. One is puzzled, however, as to why the prosecution did not make more vigorous preliminary attempts to identify the victim's body.

On the other hand, this brief and hectic occasion tore away any lingering doubts as to the curse of racism with which many elements in our American population are still affected. The racism that appeared in all its brutal nakedness in Tallahatchie County, the racism that is now inspiring a regular reign of terror against Negroes attempting to use their citizens' rights in several States of the Deep South, is no different in substance—even though it may differ in modalities—from the spirit of race hatred that can and occasionally does flare up in our changing Northern communities.

Decent people everywhere express their abhorrence of such attitudes, and ask "how come" that anywhere in the United States the mystery of an American child's violent death can thus remain unsolved. The acquittal still leaves a nagging query in the public mind. But decent people will also reflect that all of us, in one way or another, are in some sense culpable. For we have allowed and still allow the hateful racist menace to grow up in our midst.

Industry and labor on a national scale, politics and education on a national scale, have their stakes in Mississippi's Delta quite as much as in the big cities of the North. Mere loud outcries accomplish little. The time has come for substantial support, moral and material, for all those forces in the South, regardless of race, creed or color, that are striving to erase this evil from the land. 

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