Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 30 Jan 2017, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Muhammad Ali, Emmett Till… and Donald Trump

“Emmett Till and I were about the same age. A week after he was murdered, I stood on the corner with a gang of boys, looking at pictures of him in the black newspapers and magazines. In one, he was laughing and happy. In the other, his head was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets and his mouth twisted and broken. His mother had done a bold thing. She refused to let him be buried until hundreds of thousands marched past his open casket in Chicago and looked down at his mutilated body. I couldn’t get Emmett out of my mind.”

Those are the words of Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champion of the world and, because of that, a man who became symbolic of the American government’s systematic inhumanity to anyone who wasn’t white and not prepared to feign some kind of perverted Christianity. I first read them when I was doing research for a book on Ali that I contributed to, some years ago and, in the wake of the admission by Till’s accuser that she lied about him making sexually suggestive comments to her, they take on a whole new meaning that has echoes to the present, and to the kind of America that Steve Bannon and his willing glove puppet, Donald Trump, want to bring into existence.

If you’re not familiar with the case, and there’s no reason why you should be, Emmett Till was a young black kid from Chicago who visited relatives who lived in a small town in Mississippi. In any civilised society, visiting relatives in another part of the country is not a cause for much comment, any more than wearing a hat should be, or socks, but Till was black and Mississippi was a state where, back in 1955, segregation was a way of life. He visited a grocery store and the clerk, a white woman married to the proprietor and now known by the name Carolyn Bryant Donham, alleged that Till had grabbed her and made sexually suggestive remarks. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, JW Milam, abducted Till, tortured and finally killed him, disposing of his body by tying it to a fan used in cotton producing machinery and threw it into the Tallahatchie River.

In an interview carried out a while ago and recently released, Donham admitted that the story was untrue. Till had not grabbed her and made lewd remarks. Why she had said so, we can only guess, and while a lie should never get a person killed, she would have known what it meant for Till. At best he could expect a beating. And at worst, he could expect to be lynched. What I think about Donham doesn’t really bear repeating, but history’s verdict on her then-husband and JW Milam is damning. They were acquitted by an all-white jury but, protected by double jeopardy, admitted the murder to a magazine afterwards. Both died of cancer in their sixties and both had other brushes with the law.

The incident might have passed unremarked, simply more savagery from a savage place, were it not for, as Ali rightly noted, the decision by Till’s mother to have an open-casket funeral. This is what shocked America because, while restraint might have dictated otherwise, as Till was horrifically mutilated, his mother felt that restraint wasn’t what the situation needed. White America needed to see what it tacitly accepted, and it did. The pictures of him in his coffin are horrific, the pictures of his mother weeping over him are heart-rending. It shocked people, because it came into their homes and their lives in a way that it never had before, and because of Mamie Carthan Till’s bold defiance. It created ripples that broke outward, affecting the Civil Rights movement, and a young Muhammad Ali.

Why it seems so timely is that, living in the permanent present, we forget that actions committed now have consequences. So Trump is banning Muslims from countries he happens not to have business ties with, our own politicians are queuing up to normalise it and columnists are pouring out ever more hate in streams of newsprint whose purpose is only to make you see your brother or sister as your enemy. And children will be seeing this and drawing their own lessons. So will the people who are being denied refugee status. Some of them will grow up hating the West, with every good reason and for the countries, like Canada, who are prepared to accommodate them, they will benefit in ways that we can’t yet see. Britain and the USA, however, would seem to be sowing a wind and threatening to reap a whirlwind.

For ISIS and their fellow travellers, this is ready-made propaganda that can be used to illustrate the supposed fact that every Muslim is hated in our countries and seen as a second class citizen. This is a road that leads us back to Muhammad Ali, who was also hated for becoming a Muslim, daring to identify with his blackness and for changing his name from Cassius Clay, a transition that emphasised this recogntion. Admittedly, he chose some incredibly bad role models early in his career, not least Elijah Muhammad, who was as close to being a con artist as you can be without openly admitting it, but the sheer volume of bile expended on him was never going to persuade a headstrong young man to find a more moderate path. It becomes even more unlikely when you remember that, when black people were being killed with the kind of impunity that Emmett Till was, the violent insurrection espoused by the Nation of Islam, the sect that Elijah Muhammad ran, would perhaps have seemed like a more compelling answer than the non-violence espoused by Martin Luther King and the NAACP.

Ali moderated his rhetoric, but kept his faith, and his radical, and right, perception to the murder of Emmett Till as a racist action performed by a racist society can be seen to be correct. When America asked him to fight in Vietnam, the answer ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong’ became as close to a statement of black America’s bafflement at a country that wanted to enslave it at the same time as it wanted them to fight in its squalid wars overseas. The ripple had taken roughly ten years to break, but it came decisively in that comment. A man who had read about Till as a boy and then become hated for daring to identify as black had grown up to be an eloquent and direct critic of hypocrisy.

It’s my hope that people watching the idiocy of May and Trump reach for articulate condemnation and radical action before they reach for extremism, but the problem with doing stupid things is that you make the latter more likely than the former. We have to hope, us citizens of the US and the UK, that those people and the wider sweep of history don’t judge us too harshly for allowing this to happen. All we have now is to push back, hard, at the people who want us to hate like Bryant and Milam hated and to keep Emmett Till in our minds. That’s what hate can do, hate of a person, a religion, a colour and a creed. Love has to be the final and only answer.

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