From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin: The More Things Change.....
I remember the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan, lynched in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 -- for whistling at a white woman.
At the time, my grandparents owned and ran the family farm in Marvel, Arkansas just south of Helena. We (the Indiana-Chicago contingent) visited every summer. Having been born in the urban north, I was fascinated by the horses, mules, chickens, turkeys, bulls and cows, and endless fields of cotton and corn. I was even more amazed that almost everything my grandmother and grandfather ate was grown right there on their (our) own land. That truly home grown and cooked food tasted 1,000 times better than anything – everything – we ever found in the grocery stores of Chicago or Michigan City, Indiana.
As we drove to Arkansas, we never used the gas station bathrooms or stayed in the run-down hotels and motels along the way. Instead, we slept in the car and relieved ourselves on the side of the road. We never stopped at any of the “EAT AT JOE’S,” “DAISEYS KITCHENS,” or other greasy spoons which dotted the highways every 50 miles or so. Mama and my aunts had cooked up some serious “buckets” and pots of chicken, pork chops, neck bones and hot water corn bread, turnip and collard greens, jars of preserves, lemonade, pies, cookies, and cakes. In my juvenile mind-set, I assumed all this done as a money-saving measure.
I was especially excited to meet new family “folk” and reunite with distant cousins, including “Little Donald” who was slightly older. Lil’ Donald could drive, having learned to do so on the family tractor. One sweltering, hot and humid-as-a-wet-blanket July day, as prepubescent boys will do, we “borrowed” the pick-up and sneaked off the farm to make a quick run into “town” 20 miles down the road. We were after stuff not grown or available on the farm: candy, ice cold pop and store-bought ice cream. Lil’ Donald parked the truck about a half mile from the the “store” so that it would not been seen.
As we approached the store, a broken down clapboard house which had been converted into a “General Store,” I broke into a run, challenging my cousin to a race to the front door.
As I ran, he stood stock still and began yelling as loud as he could. “Herb, Herb!” he was almost crying.
“Stop! Stop!! Come back!” I ignored him and his pleas, and bounded up the two or three steps right on into the middle of the store.
I bent over placing my hands on my knees, facing the floor, trying to catch my breath. When I looked up finally, there were two beefy red-faced white men and a tall, emaciated-looking, apron-clad white woman surrounding me, looking down at me. The woman clutched a baseball bat in her right hand.
And in the most southern of southern drawls, the man nearest me said, “Boy,” and stared at me with a contempt that was tangible, palpable. His disgust at my existence was obvious. A visible hatred radiated from him and was suspended in the air between us. “What you doin’ comin’ in the front do’, boy?” he sneered, demanded.
Still bent, trying to catch my breath, I slowly stood upright. But before I could say anything, all four of us turned our heads, in unison, to the front door. There stood my cousin, also breathing hard although he had not been running.
“Mister Charley…suh?” he said plaintively. His voice was trembling, as was his whole body. “Dat my cousin from up norph, suh” he said. His head was bowed and angled toward the floor. His gaze, his eyes, were steadfast at the floor. “He from Chicago, suh. He don’ know nothin’. He don’ know no better, suh,” he pleaded. “Please, suh, don’ hurt 'im. He don’ know nothin’ suh. Please let ‘im go, suh….and we’s go roun’ da back. He won’ do it no mo’….I promises, suh.”
I had never seen nor heard Lil’ Donald act or speak like this before. Gone was his happy-go-lucky, mischievous persona and adventurous spirit. He had transformed himself into a completely different person, a defeated person.
With her left hand, the white woman with the bat grabbed my shirt at the shoulder and pulled me into her hard, flat chest. The smell of stale beer and flour was overpowering. I did not begin to comprehend what was happening. What did these people want? Why was Lil’ Donald acting so strangely?
Her ice-blue eyes locked into mine. She smiled the widest four-toothed grin I’d ever seen. “Charley…..maybe we oughta teach this here lil’ Shee-caw-goe n***** a lil’ Arkan-saw lesson….”
“Naw, Mabel,” said Mister Charley. “Lil’ Donald here gon’ school him.” Tain’t you, boy!” he shouted at my cousin without looking at him. He looked instead at me, and then at the apron. “Turn ‘m loose, Mabel.”
And with an upturned, concerned, even compassionate face, he said, “We cain’t ches-tize a n***** iff-en it don’ know the rules.” He paused, then looked at Lil’ Donald. “Jus’ tain’t fair.”
Like Emmett Till and so many, many others before him and since, Trayvon Martin did not survive his encounter with white supremacy. He was not able nor prepared to cross the intersection of white supremacy and Black budding manhood. There was no Lil’ Donald available to him to help him cross.
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, white supremacists would take their victims back into the woods and beat, shoot, burn and lynch then mutilate them there, usually under cover of night, but often in the glow of gargantuan gasoline-soaked Christian crosses. Now, because of the advancements in technology, they may simply stalk the Trayvon Martins of the world in broad open daylight, like some dangerous animal, while talking to the local constable on their I-phones as they do so. Contrary to Clarence Thomas’ assertions, Trayvon’s was a real “high-tech lynching.”
Had Emmett Till or Trayvon Martin been with a southern-bred relative or friend who knew how to “talk” to those people, perhaps…..Well, I thank God for Lil’ Donald Scaife.
He passed recently – of natural causes.