• Daniel Ethan Finneran

The Last Refuge Of The Racist

November 2018

The last refuge of the racist, it seems, is the first place you’d expect it to be. It’s the place where, sixty-three years ago in the summer of 1955, a young man by the name of Emmett Till was brutally killed.

From the outset, to say as much is a bit misleading, as Till was no man, but a mere boy of fourteen. Nor was he simply murdered, as if to say killed in an ordinarily criminal fashion. Many others in possession of a skin tone as dark as his were equally unlucky in those days and they too were killed. Till’s death, however, was a far different and a far more depraved affair. He wasn’t destined to meet the same odious and shared fate that countless other blacks living in the antebellum and Jim Crow South did. Rather, Emmett Till was to provide for the now distinctive field of “hate-crimes” a new and terribly grotesque face. Contrasted with too many others killed of his race, Till was a strikingly macabre exception; he was viciously mutilated beyond recognition for the prurient crime of laying eyes on a girl.

A native Chicagoan who was passing the month of August with extended family in the depths of the deep South, Till was beaten, maimed, shot, drowned, and three days later retrieved from the Tallahatchie River. His once youthful, happily insouciant figure, which not long ago played ball with friends in the streets of Illinois, was transformed in those unholy backwaters of Mississippi. Over the course of three days, Till turned into a bloated, bruised, and disintegrating corpse without a semblance of the innocence he used to be. It was a body at once swollen yet in recession, as the skin was exposed to the spoiling effects of the water and the air. Though intended to be sunk at the bottom, it rose, not unlike the great Nazarene prophet, and drifted from the currents toward the shore. There, having been spotted by some curious locals out enjoying their morning walk on the bank, it was hesitantly retrieved, cursorily cleaned, and rather unsentimentally shipped to the boy’s now childless parents back home.

The swelling of his face was nearly as shocking as the fact that his assailants were let off scot free. Both white men (an epidermal and, because of that, an unalienable advantage not to be overlooked where matters of Southern law were concerned), the court was sympathetic to their plight. Theirs was a chivalric act, or so they contended in front of their peers. It might be added that said peers were comfortingly and predominantly white. Although grisly, they argued to bemusing success, Till was a deserving recipient of the hand he was dealt. His sin, after all (incriminatory to the last), was an effrontery against the feminine sex, the entire Caucasian race. This was a matter of pride, of white predominance, of black transgression, and for these reasons, the boy’s crime couldn’t be overlooked.

Nor could the movement toward integration be suppressed. A few years after Emmett Till’s now infamous death, in the equally tumultuous summer of 1962, a one James Meredith emerged on the scene. Meredith, aged twenty-nine at the time and already a veteran of the American Air Force and a life in these segregated United States, forced into modernity the aptly, if not archaically named “Ole’ Miss” (it’s less colloquially known as the University of Mississippi). He was a man who, unlike the unfortunate Till, survived an attempt on his life while marching from Memphis to Jackson in protest of segregation. In time and through his dauntless efforts, he became the beacon of brazen strength, the model of sophisticated resilience, the picture of a progressive wind, but really and above all, he was a man who wanted nothing better than further to educate himself.

However, if black, access to such higher education was an unnavigable and circumscribed thing. Worse than that, it was an overwhelmingly Caucasian affair. It was because of this that his acceptance to the University of Mississippi in 1962 was a fraught and unwelcomed event. It was an unpropitious inauguration of integration, opening for the first time to a black academic the inner sanctum of the most racist university in the South. More than anything else, Ole’ Miss experienced what you might call an integration by compulsion, as it was by a federal judicial decree that the college was made to open its still bitterly racist doors. The university, up until the nettlesome Meredith thought himself sufficiently, if not audaciously bold to seek the treasures of a higher education under its roof, was quite well-disposed toward its ingrained and ancient racial thinking. It was a philosophy that saw as feasibly uneducable and socially unacceptable any color other than white on its premises.

Though Meredith’s ingress into the university halls didn’t usher racism’s immediate egress (as Americans north of the Mason-Dixon might’ve hoped), it did prove a vital moment of palpable and shifting force. It was a crucial landmark in the long and tiresome struggle for the equality of black citizens to not only commensurate educational, but also social and political access and rights. Sure, it required of the federal government the dispatch of no fewer than one hundred and twenty armed troops to ensure Meredith’s safety, to enforce its decision, and quell a state now enraged, but it was a necessary and important step.

That’s how the state of Mississippi, the last refuge of the racist, tends to move. It trudges unwillingly along its path toward modernity and racial equality with a slow and frustrating gait. It seems to do so with no shortage of missteps, as if enjoying the deviation from the road. Above all, it’s a path untrodden by refinement, untouched by civility, numb to edification, and blind to enlightenment.

No more was this on display than during the recent campaign for the U.S. Senate. Competing for the vacated seat left by the aged Republican Thad Cochran, Cindy Hyde-Smith said to an intimate group of supporters the following inexplicable words: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row”. The he, in this context, must be assumed to be President Trump—though it’s not clear if she imagined him as the event’s hangman or chief organizer and sponsor. Certainly, neither his nor her throat would be the one cinched by the noose. And her attendance at said hanging, one can only suppose, would have to be understood as a symbol of the fealty she has to this president and his “Make America Great Again” creed. Understood in that most sympathetic way, Hyde-Smith was making clear the lengths to which she’d be willing to go if only to advance the president’s agenda.

Yet what she said is no advancement at all. If anything, it’s a painful relapse into an earlier, uglier time—a time more appropriately found in the excrement of our nation’s history than on 2018 campaign trails. Of all states in the Confederacy and, after a few sanguinary years, the totality of the reconciled Union, Mississippi has the honor of ranking itself first in the number of black citizens who were, within the boundaries of its state, lynched or hanged. Its soil, between the early-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century, was of all fifty states the most regularly (if not extrajudicially) watered, and at times saturated with African American blood. Such a morbid excitement at the very thought of attending a public hanging (as Hyde-Smith expressed) is disquieting by its own measure; such a flippant, clearly racist, and insensitive eagerness to be in the front row, for that matter, is downright repellent.

But apparently, Mississippi Republicans aren’t so easily putt off. By a sizable margin, they cast their ballots for the overt, unapologetic racist, Hyde-Smith. No longer a merely temporary Senate appointment (she was brought in by the state’s governor to fill Cochran’s seat upon his departure in April of this year), she’s now an incumbent and will work in the halls of the Capitol building at D.C. But always she can find comfort in knowing that she might return to the state from which she came—the state whose development and progress have been obviously arrested, whose racist past has been hardened into a shell, whose flag still bears the repugnant Confederate stars and bars (as it has, in its upper-left corner and without much serious contention, since 1894). There she can go to find sympathy and hospitality in that last bastion of racism—that place where Till died and Meredith studied under threat of life and limb. It’s there she goes, and so goes Mississippi.

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