Emmett Till and the Security of African Americans

August 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

My department is co-sponsoring an exhibit on the murder of Emmett Till at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library.  The exhibit itself opened Monday, 17 August, and will end on 17 September.  Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the events that led to Till’s murder at the hands of Roy Bryant and JM Milam.  In conjunction with the exhibit, our department is sponsoring a speaker’s series.  The first was last night, by my colleague, Ansley Quiros.  She talked about Till’s murder in the context of the long struggle for African-American freedom.

By coincidence, I was talking about slavery in my US history class today.  In particular, we were looking at the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850 and the fallout of Prigg v. Pennsylvania, an 1842 Supreme Court decision.  The case arose several years earlier when Prigg, a bounty hunter from Maryland, crossed into Pennsylvania to capture an alleged slave, Margaret Morgan.  Morgan had lived as a free-woman in Maryland (a slave state) before moving with her family (which included her husband, John, and at least three children) to Pennsylvania (a free state).  Prigg attempted to remove Margaret and her children to Maryland and into slavery.  When a Pennsylvania magistrate refused to grant Prigg a Certificate of Removal, due to her free status (John Morgan had been born free in Pennsylvania, as had at least one of their children), he and his partners kidnapped Margaret and her children.  They were indicted for kidnapping.  After a stand-off between Maryland and Pennsylvania, Prigg and his men were convicted.  Their conviction was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court in DC, however, overturned their conviction. (All of this was too late for Margaret Morgan and her children, who were sold into slavery and never heard from again).

The Supreme Court found that the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which had been passed by Congress, was problematic in that it guaranteed due process for the alleged fugitive slave, which was part of the problem for Prigg in the Morgan case.  Due process had worked in favour of Margaret Morgan and her kids.  The Supreme Court, though, found that any state laws that impeded the right of slave owners were de facto unconstitutional.  And more than that, alleged escape slaves were not entitled to due process by dint of the fact that they were not citizens of the United States.

In practical terms, Prigg nationalized the racial basis of slavery.  Any African American in a slave state could be presumed to be a slave.  With Prigg, however, this was nationalized: any African American in a non-slave state could now be presumed to be a fugitive slave . And this is exactly what happened to Solomon Northrup, the man whose story was dramatized in the 2013 film, Twelve Years a Slave.  In short, the 175,000 free African Americans in the non-slave states were in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery due to Prigg.

Emmett Till, a fourteen-year old boy was killed a century after Solomon’s ordeal, for the crime of making a comment of an undetermined nature to Carolyn Bryant.  She testified at Till’s murderers’ trial (one of the accused was her husband) that Till had made lewd comments to her.  It is pretty obvious she perjured herself.  Till’s case sparked a national furore and helped to spark the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

But in the past several years, mass indignation has emerged again, as a series of unarmed black men have been murdered at the hands of the police and private citizens, with next to no impunity, as was the case with Till’s murderers (Bryant and Milam confessed to the crime in Look magazine in 1956, as they could not be re-tried for the crime they were acquitted for the year earlier).  When Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, a trigger-happy neighbourhood watch captain (who has since been in trouble with the law for a series of violent incidents), indignation erupted, made all the more intense when Zimmerman was acquitted.

President Obama was particularly struck by Martin’s murder, noting that if he had had a son, he might have looked like Martin. But this was just the first case of unarmed black men being murdered, the catalyst, so to speak of the #blacklivesmatter campaign.

After Ansley’s talk tonight, there were very few actual questions.  Instead, some older African Americans in the audience talked about their experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South.  It was powerful.  One man talked of growing up in DC, but whenever he went to Virginia, his mother reminded him to behave himself and to defer to white people. One woman talked movingly of her own experiences, including her mother being poisoned in a Mississippi restaurant after she attempted to take advantage of her civil rights in the 1960s.  This woman expressed fear for her grandchildren, about their security.

I couldn’t help thinking about what I was talking about in class today.  One of my students was incredulous about the Prigg decision and the consequences of it: she noted that African Americans were forced to live in fear.  There wasn’t much I could say in response to that.  She also drew on our previous class, noting that slavery was a system based on mutual terror.  The slaves were terrorized into compliance and the slave owners were terrified of a slave revolt.  Another student then noted that African Americans have never had much cause to feel much freedom.  Listening to these elders speak tonight after Ansley’s talk brought it home very powerfully for me.

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