Columns » Ernest Dumas

Awaiting remorse



William Faulkner, who wrote a fine novel or two about coming to terms with an inglorious past and the healing power of remorse, would have liked January — a few days of it, anyway.

Who knows what he would have made of the rising nationalism and institutionalized bigotry manifested in the election and the months afterward, but he would have found redemption in a few Faulknerian moments. "The past is never dead," he wrote. "It's not even past."

There was the white liberal lawyer trying vainly in a South Carolina courtroom to save the life of a privileged white lad who had confessed to — no, boasted of — the murder of nine black worshipers at a South Carolina church to show white nationalists whose online postings he had followed that they needed to massacre blacks and not just talk, and then the grieving kin of the dead who gave the boy absolution.

Last week, a book by the historian Timothy Tyson revealed that Carolyn Bryant had owned up to lying in a Mississippi courtroom in 1955 when she said Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago with a lisp, whistled at her, grabbed her in her husband's store and told her that he had had sex with white women in Chicago. Her husband and his half-brother wrested the boy from his grandfather's house, tortured and shot him in the face, mutilated his body, tied a cotton-gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and sank his body to the bottom of the Tallahatchie River.

Bryant, who remarried twice, must no longer have the pretty but stolid face I saw on the front page of the paper as she waited to testify in defense of her husband in 1955. Now 82, and unwilling to let people to know where she lives, she said her testimony was a lie and she was sorry the boy suffered so grievously for it. The trial of her husband and the other grinning killer was a farce, and the jury quickly acquitted them to the jubilation of the courtroom. The two men were paid $3,000 and described to another author a few years later how they had killed the boy when he would not recant having had sex with white women. Carolyn Bryant now says the boy never made the claim.

Till's mother opened the casket at Chicago so the whole world could see the mutilated face and torso of her son, and a few newspapers, mainly the black press, ran the picture. The murder and the trial focused the attention of the American press on the South's racial problem for the first time. Major newspapers began to send reporters south to cover such events — there were plenty — and the burgeoning civil rights movement.

More remarkable was a gathering last week at a Methodist church in LaGrange, Ga. The white police chief and the mayor told the packed church they were profoundly sorry for the lynching of a 16-year-old black boy named Austin Callaway, taken to the jail in 1940 for allegedly hitting a white woman and then hauled away by six white men, beaten and shot seven times.

LaGrange's police chief, Louis Dekmar, denounced the city's police for doing nothing. "For that," he said, "I'm profoundly sorry." He said the town had committed a "litany of injustices" against black people over the years that had poisoned relations. Every citizen, he said, had a right to expect their police and city leaders would be "honest, decent, unbiased and ethical."

Here and there, over the years, there have been apologies for a few of the more than 4,000 blacks who were murdered by Southern mobs between 1877 and 1950 while the authorities stood by or participated. In Arkansas, according to one scholar who tracked them, at least 231 blacks were murdered without trials for some alleged offense against a white person. In my town in Union County, no one apologized for the authorities allowing the lynching of young Edward Brock on Aug. 10, 1923, for allegedly insulting a white woman.

The closest we came might have been four years later, in 1927, when the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce issued a statement condemning the anarchy that took over the city when a mob captured John Carter for allegedly striking a white woman and her daughter after asking where the bridge was and where he could get some whiskey. They hanged him from a telephone pole, riddled his body with bullets, dragged him through the streets of Little Rock, built a bonfire at Ninth and Broadway from the pews of a black church and businesses on Ninth Street, and burned his body. One man ripped off a burning arm to direct traffic on Broadway. Celebrating crowds roamed downtown. Pictures of Carter's burning body were sold downtown the next day for 15 cents. Arkansas's public television this spring will air an amazing documentary on Ninth Street with images of the horror.

Floodwaters covered much of East Arkansas and another downtown building had fallen into the raging Arkansas River the day before. Worried that the national publicity might jeopardize flood relief, the chamber condemned the anarchy and the city government for permitting it. The Arkansas Gazette ran a front-page editorial the next day condemning the police, sheriff's office and the city government for doing nothing. The editorials raged for days.

But you might read the newspaper's own stories with some horror. The Gazette's headlines referred to Carter as the "negro brute" and convicted him. One will grow sick reading newspaper accounts of Arkansas lynchings, which referred to the black victims as savages, animals, brutes or monsters, and were composed with the same verve that you would describe the Patriots' Super Bowl rally.

There is a glimmer of hope even with the press. This week, The New York Times acknowledged, though without apology, that until 1956 it had never given a black woman the dignity of having her marriage recorded on its proud pages.

In 1988, President Reagan signed an act formally apologizing to 100,000 citizens of Japanese descent who were falsely imprisoned during World War II.

Wait for the day — soon, surely — that President Trump will apologize to a race for the lynchings and other depredations.

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