Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Lives of Others

The murder of Emmett Till was perhaps the most public of the countless blemishes on the American southern postwar apartheid regime. Some "good" did come from the atrocity -- for starters, Till's murder and the subsequent acquittal of his killers catalyzed the civil rights movement, and inspired To Kill a Mockingbird. It helped begin the dismantling of said apartheid regime, at least in the official sense. Southerners could drawl their "proud" plaints all they wanted, but nothing could undo the contempt they saw in the eyes of the rest of the country and the world.

The "revelation" that the woman at the center of the murder, whom Till made the fatal mistake of flirting with, was lying the whole time, should surprise no one. But in small additional twist of karmic fate, it turns out that Carolyn Bryant Donham's life was, according to writer Timothy Tyson, "ruined" as well.

I'll confess to being just small enough of a person to be gratified, heartened by that fact. Till's murder, it turns out, ruined the lives of his killers, Roy Bryant (Carolyn's husband) and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, the latter of whom was quite open about his glee in putting Till "in his place." Bryant and Milam had their shops boycotted until they had to close, and were basically run out of town, moved to Texas, their notoriety following them, and had difficulty finding gainful employment for the rest of their miserable lives. Both men died in their early sixties of cancer, hopefully in unspeakable pain.

Ordinarily I'd have wished that fate on Carolyn Bryant Donham as well, but it is just as gratifying to know that she's had to live with it all these years. It's still not enough, and one would like to see something more closely resembling actual remorse, rather than mere regret. (Incidentally, Tyson is something of a chump for waiting ten fucking years to drop this bit of information in the first place.)

Donham's lies had impact on the lives of countless others:  her initial lie got a kid murdered, beaten so hard one of his eyes popped out his head; her subsequent lie in court got Emmett Till's murderers off the hook. That willful evasion of justice triggered a massive, painful national upheaval, one which got countless other people beaten and killed. All for the institutionalized refusal to recognize that, as our esteemed founding fathers once wrote, tongues perhaps in their cheeks, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

It's amazing to think of how recent that murder was, a mere three generations ago, most of the principals now rotting in hell, but still relatively fresh in the collective psyche, which turns its soil more slowly, patiently. The people who insist that their stupid confederate flag has a "different" meaning should be forced to read the detailed account of Emmett Till's murder, and others like it that were commonplace throughout the south for a full century after the war supposedly ended. Countless other scumbags got away clean with evil deeds, just as awful as Till's murder.

The Union was way too nice to the traitorous insurrectionist slave states after the war -- every plantation owner should have been shot immediately, and the property redistributed among the people who had been forced under pain of death and torture to work it for free. It would have saved a hundred years of misery for millions of people.

I hope the last sixty years have held nothing but pain and sorrow for Carolyn Donham. I hope she has had regular nightmares featuring Emmett Till's face, pulped beyond recognition just a few weeks after his fifteenth birthday, because of her lies. I hope she lives to be 120, of sound mind, cognizant right up to her final breath of what she did, unable to escape its full weight. But as with most people who are capable of such actions in the first place, it's much more likely that she forgave herself long ago, feels that she paid the price, even though it was she all along who chose to pay it.

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