We have become aware of how easy it is for a black person, especially a male black person, to be killed for no reason at all.
Along with that awareness comes the realization that the killing has been going on ever since there were white people on this continent, and black people whom white people thought they could kill with impunity.
I first became aware of the slaughter of black people in the 1960s. Along with the assassinations of figures like Jack Kennedy, his brother Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., there were other murders. Like today, many of the people who were killed were black. Black leaders, civil rights workers, or black people who were minding their own business were murdered in those years.
Who were they?
We’ll start with Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi in August, 1955. He was said to have flirted with a white woman. Three nights later he was taken from his relatives’ home by the woman’s husband and her brother, beaten, mutilated, shot, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River.
His murderers were captured and brought to trial. They were acquitted by a white jury. They then sold the story of how they killed Emmett Till to Look Magazine.
When Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, received his body in Chicago and saw Emmett’s remains, she decided to have an open casket funeral. Because of her decision, tens of thousands of people attended his funeral and saw him in his casket. Pictures of his battered remains were published in newspapers and magazines, provoking outrage and sympathy among people who saw him. The lynching of Emmett Till gave impetus to the civil rights movement that would gain traction and momentum through the 50s and 60s. His murder was a lit match thrown into dry tinder.
But Emmett Till was only one.
There was James Earl Chaney, who, along with two white civil rights workers, was shot and buried in an earth work dam.
Medgar Evers, shot by a sniper in the driveway of his home.
Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, four young black girls who died in the basement of their church when it was bombed one Sunday morning.
Jimmie Lee Jackson, beaten and shot by state troopers while trying to protect his grandfather and his mother. His death led to the Selma-Montgomery march.
Martin Luther King, Jr., shot by a sniper while standing on a balcony outside his motel room.*
Now defenseless black people are killed, some of them children, and we are told that the police thought they were dangerous. Thanks to cell phone videos and dashboard cams we can see with our own eyes the nonsense of the lies we are told.
Racism has been with us since before our country was a country. It is the huge fault in our bedrock. It remained somewhat covert, at least to white people, for a few decades, from the 1970s until 2008. With Obama’s election racists became too enraged to remain silent and hidden anymore, apparently.
Racists are open and loud with their racism these days. The rhetoric is violent. They are encouraged by their numbers, by each other. It is open season on black people, especially black men and boys, but women are being killed, too. It always has been open season on black people in this country, and black people have always known that. White people were able to ignore it.
Racism is an insidious lie. I was raised on it, and even though I thought I didn’t buy into it, even though I always thought it was wrong, it took me a long time to learn that some jokes weren’t funny, and that some of the language and ideas I took for granted were wrong and hurtful and part of a culture that condoned and carried on killing black people as if they were not really human beings.
I’m still learning. I still carry my racist upbringing with me, as we all do.
Racism is a lie, a psychotic lie, a mind and heart breaking lie that is a part of who we are in this country. It poisons the air we breathe. It pollutes the blood in our veins. It drives us mad.
Will there ever come an end to racism in America? Not in my lifetime. I can only hope and pray and work for racism to be no more. That’s all I can think to do, that, and always to call racism by its right name: a damned lie.
*This is an extremely small sample of people who were murdered in those days. If you want to see a more complete list, google “civil rights martyrs.”