Editors Note: Today marks our first commentary from contributing editor Stephen Henderson, the Pulitzer-prize winning editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, where this column also appears.
When they buried Emmett Till in 1955, his mother, Mamie, wanted to be sure America could see her son’s battered face and head, the crushed bone and deep bruises inflicted by two Mississippi men who ravaged the life out of him.
So she chose a casket with a glass top. If you could bring yourself to look inside, you couldn’t look away. And you couldn’t look past what the image said about the nation in which Till lived, where black men and boys could quickly be hung from trees or beaten to death for the slightest indiscretion, or for no reason at all.
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Mamie Till knew the image of her son in that casket, published in newspapers and magazines across the country, would be a call to an American reckoning, and to action.
Now, we face our own call to collective will to stop the gruesome pattern of brutal police killings of African American men, women and children.
And we have our own horrific visuals that ought to make it impossible for us to look away.
This week, we watched the recorded video of police officers in Baton Rouge, La., shooting and killing Alton Sterling while he lay on his back. We saw the blood spread across the shirt he was wearing, we watched his hands and arms quiver as the officer fired one shot after another into his chest. And we watched him die, in agony, the result of an encounter with police over CDs he was selling outside a store.
Cell phone video, captured by an eyewitness, shows two Baton Rouge police officers shooting Alton Sterling. This video is extremely graphic and viewer discretion is advised.
And then we watched Philando Castile suffer and die after a police officer in Minnesota shot him, again without apparent provocation, during a traffic stop for a broken taillight.
Friday morning brought more horror, as snipers in Dallas killed five police officers during a protest over the Sterling and Castile incidents – a wildly inappropriate furthering of the cycle of violence, and a despicable act that mirrors, rather than challenges, disrespect for life. Madness can only spiral into more madness, not clarity or justice.
But the callback, from Sterling and Castile in 2016 to Till in 1955, is evocative, and haunting.
And the linkage — between the era of lynching and the era of recorded police killings of African Americans — is growing more evident, and more disturbing, with each passing incident.
This era demands no less vigilance. Our willingness to face it, or not, will define this nation’s humanity for decades to come.
Videos lay bare the truth
The witnessing of police killings, through cell phone video and other surveillance, is one of the strongest parallels to Till’s murder and the lynching that defined life in the South for African Americans for several decades.
Till’s mother had every reason to hide what her son looked like after he was beaten to death for whistling at a white woman during a summer trip to Mississippi from Chicago. Funerals are private affairs, and her grieving could only have been aggravated by the constant viewing of his brutally altered visage.
But her decision to let the world see Emmett’s face raised the curtain on a culture of lynching that many had not previously understood or had denied. It laid bare the most awful consequences of inaction against racism. It made complicit, from that point on, anyone who dared suggest that violence against blacks was a myth or overblown.
There’s little difference between that and the video recordings that have shone light on the darkness of police killings. Anyone in the black community can tell you they’re not new, and they are not necessarily increasing. They’re a shameful and spirit-crushing part of this country’s existence.
Now that we can all see — from Eric Garner to Laquan McDonald to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — there is no turning away or bashful demurring.
The video recordings are 21st-Century glass-top caskets. They make it impossible to deny a reality that has been subject to doubt and negation for too long.
The Sterling and Castile killings in particular, because they are so graphic, leave no room for quibbling or argument. The senseless escalation is crystal clear, evoking all of the dynamics of the previous killings we’ve seen: the ready assumptions about the “threat” and “power” of black men, the violent overreaction of police in tense situations, the cold distancing that doesn’t even allow for police officers to render assistance after their victims have been brutalized.
Castile’s girlfriend, who not only recorded his killing but also broadcast his suffering live on Facebook, is especially redolent of Mamie Till’s sensibilities.
Killing under cover of law
Lynchings are also connected to police killings by the color of authority under which they take place.
In the South, in particular, white mobs that killed blacks often included sheriffs and other officers, or carried a wink-and-nod inoculation from consequence. An all-white jury, reported by some media to have been laughing during the trial, acquitted Emmett Till’s killers after 67 minutes of deliberation.
Today, the police killers of African Americans we see on camera typically face no consequence, buffered by their own claims of fear and prosecutors’ reluctance to assign blame.
The message is clear: If you’re a cop there’s cover for you, no matter what the circumstances or plain sight makes clear. And that makes this distinct from the wanton violence we see in the streets of cities like Detroit or Chicago, where a bloody drug and turf war has sent homicide rates skyrocketing.
Every homicide is a tragedy. But those committed by people we pay to protect and serve — they are a peculiar insult, and a pernicious betrayal.
That’s not new, either — think back to the acquittals in the Rodney King beating case in Los Angeles in 1992. There’s no question the adjudication of his case falls into the line of pattern here. But the frequency of recorded incidents that end in killings and are followed by no action can only be reassuring officers who are part of the culture that devalues black life.
A new call to action
But the emboldening must not be one-sided. Not if we are to meet this era’s challenge.
The photos of Till in 1955 marked the turn for a struggling civil rights movement, and began to rally previously complacent parties to the cause.
The Black Lives Matter movement is new and still trying to find its footing in terms of long-term impact, but isn’t it now analogous to the early days of the civil rights movement, when many were skeptical of its purpose and intent?
How much stronger would that movement be with more participants, ordinary citizens who have seen enough and been called to action around police killings?
And even though it took years, and decades, for the U.S. Justice Department to reopen the Till case and attempt to set things straight, the late 1950s and 1960s marked the beginning of federal intervention into the activities that supported and sustained white mob rule, especially in the south.
So why shouldn’t the same be true now?
Has U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch seen enough to be called into action not only against individual incidents, but the wider culture of police brutality that props up the killings of African Americans? The Justice Department’s study of Ferguson, Mo.’s police and prosecutorial tactics found serial, substantive offenses and near criminal dynamics. Who can believe that’s contained to one city, or one department?
Justice has an opportunity to step into the breach, with the backing of President Obama and perhaps the Congress, to change the way police are trained and supervised, and the way criminal justice is meted out.
A call like what we’ve seen — one that hearkens back to even darker times in American history — is impossible to ignore, or brush off.
From 1955 to 2016, our witnessing should inspire recognition of a profound American problem — and action to correct it.