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January 21, 2003
You're right, Rich. Eight days,

You're right, Rich. Eight days, or however many it's been (12 now), is too long. Many's the time, oh yes, when I've sat at this keyboard and thought I'd write something for the ole' coredump, but equal is the number of times I've put it off. Not today, though, boy howdy, the scales are tippin'.

martin Luther king

Today's holiday got me to thinking and a-watching some documentaries. I can't say actually that I watched them in a conscious effort to celebrate or remember Dr. Martin Luther King; it would be more accurate to say that they were on TV for that reason, and I watched them because they were on TV.

The first one was Brother Outsider, about the life of Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist and friend of King's. Rustin was key to the early days of the civil rights movement, and continued to fight for peace and love and all his whole life. He's not much remembered though. He wasn't the martyr, so he faded away.

It's amazing that the crazy people who assassinate men like King or Abraham Lincoln or Gandhi don't realize that by killing these men they've cemented their causes. Who knows how far or how fast the civil rights movement would have gone if King had lived. Maybe he would have done great things, certainly he would have, but it really can be true that his death accomplished more than he ever could have alive.

I then watched a story about the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. This 14 year old boy's brutal murder is considered to be the starting point of the civil rights movement, and it's all due to his mother. A war widow in Chicago, when her son's mutilated body was brought back North, she refused to have it "touched up" and insisted on an open casket funeral. 50,000 people came to see what these insane hillbillies had done to the boy, and then Jet magazine published the photos.

The anger this caused wasn't enough, though, and the two men who killed Till were acquitted by an all white jury in 67 minutes. 4 weeks later the two men's "real story", in which they graphically confessed to pistol whipping and then executing the kid before dumping his body in the river, was published by Look magazine, the two protected from further prosecution by the 5th Amendment.

Emmett's mother Mamie sent a telegram to President Eisenhower asking that there be a federal investigation into the crime and the trial. He never wrote back. But the secret was out about the south by then, and it was too late for them. Nine weeks after the verdict Rosa Parks was arrested.

It's amazing how such a terrible act can resonate with such force. It's also amazing, and sad, that it seems that terrible acts are almost necessary for certain kinds of change to take place. People can be so stuck in their ways, behaviors and attitudes can be so institutionalized that it takes a firestorm to wake people up.

It's also amazing how often and consistently history repeats itself. The more I learn about the past, the more familiar the present seems and the less I'm surprised by the future. It smacks of inevitability sometimes. Hopefully, though, there is some progress. We may have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again, generation after generation, but maybe on the whole, overall, over time, we're learning. Damn, I hope so.

So here's to Mamie Till, and to Emmett's uncle Mose Wright and another local man who risked everything by pointing out the murderers after being threatened with death if they talked, and of course to Martin Luther King. They all have more courage than I can quite imagine.


Previous Comments

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