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. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

 10.17.2018 Pope Francis greets Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago before a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct. 16. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
“We take people where they are, walking with them, moving forward,” Cardinal Blase Cupich said.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 20, 2018
Catherine Pakaluk, who currently teaches at the Catholic University of America and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, describes her tweet to Mr. Macron as “spirited” and “playful.”
Emma Winters October 19, 2018
A new proposal from the Department of Homeland Security could make it much more difficult for legal immigrants to get green cards in the United States. But even before its implementation, the proposal has led immigrants to avoid receiving public benefits.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 19, 2018
 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018