“and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free“ John 8:32″
Twelve years ago this month I experienced one of the most impactful afternoons of my life. After having spent a week walking in the footsteps of “the prince of peace,“ who’s last commandment to his followers was to love one another, I saw a graphic portrayal of mankind’s capacity for evil. I had spent that afternoon winding my way through the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man was on full display in a ghastly, gruesome, yet matter-of-fact fashion.
The face of incomprehensible evil
I saw a series of photographs of mass graves scattered all over Europe. They contained the lifeless bodies of innocent Jews, whose only crime was being Jewish. I saw large piles of eyeglasses that had been removed from the dead bodies of Jews. I saw enormous heaps of baby shoes that had been taken from exterminated babies. And I saw railroad cars where hundreds of Jews had been systematically murdered. On that afternoon in Jerusalem, after having seen where God’s only begotten son was born, where he grew into manhood, where he taught his message of love, and where he was crucified, dead and buried I saw the face of incomprehensible evil!
The gut-wrenching experience left me physically sick. Seeing the evil, that I had only read about previously, literally nauseated me. The appallingly disgusting images are, no doubt, designed, as they should be, to shock the senses and compel sober reflection.
I can’t imagine anything more disturbing than the crimes inflicted on these helpless Jews. However, crimes like this or “ethnic cleansing” is still taking place today. The Turks are attempting it this very day against our allies, the Kurds, in northern Syria. The only significant population of Christians left in that region of the world (some estimate as many as 300,000), and are sure to be next !
Museums and monuments to man‘s capacity for evil have sprung up all over Europe and America. Thankfully, these museums and monuments serve as reminders that the only crime that comes close to approaching the severity of these crimes against humanity is our own crime of indifference, silence and unwillingness to remember!
Emmett Till’s fourth monument
Only a couple of weeks ago, a new monument was dedicated in Money, Mississippi. In August of 1955, authorities fished the swollen, badly beaten body of a fourteen year old black boy named Emmett Till out of the Tallahatchie River near this site. Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager, was kidnapped from his great uncle’s home, savagely beaten, murdered and thrown into the River, with a cotton gin fan tied to his young body. An attractive white woman had alleged that young Emmett had whistled at her and flirted with her (which story she later largely recanted) at her family’s country store. Her story led her husband and his half brother to kidnap, torture and murder the teen. The two white men were arrested and tried the following month and were, of course, quickly acquitted by an all white jury.
Emmett till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on a public funeral with an open casket, so the whole world could see the bloated, mutilated body of her young son.
The savage lynching of Emmett Till gave rise to the civil rights movement and shocked the sensibilities of the entire nation.
The memorial to Emmett Till that was erected a few weeks ago is the forth one to be erected. The first such marker was not installed until 2008. It mysteriously disappeared shortly thereafter. The next two were vandalized by repeated rifle and shotgun blasts. This new monument is apparently bullet proof, with protective glass and reinforced steel. It weighs over 500 pounds and is monitored by cameras. What does it say about us that these precautions are necessary?
Why we must remember history
In spite of all these safeguards, I wonder how long this one will last. We Mississippians are a notoriously defiant bunch, especially where matters of race are concerned. Our resistance to memory is baffling and frustrating. White folks and black folks alike are often hostile to memory. As Jesse Jaynes-Diming, a member of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission recently told National Public Radio, both black and white people came to the planning meetings saying, “Why are y’all bringing this stuff up? Why don’t you just let it die?”
Folks express those sentiments to me often. “Let’s not stir all that old stuff up again. Let it die, let’s forget about all that.”
My analysis of these attitudes is pretty elementary psychology. For black folks, it’s simply too painful to remember. That’s understandable. If it’s pain that motivates black discomfort, stain is the motivator for white folks. It’s an indictment on our own virtues, our own innocence! Most of us certainly never directly participated in a lynching.
However, the bigger question is what did we do to stop it? Did we speak out against racism? Did we really devote ourselves to justice or did we turn away, take the safe course and rationalize there was nothing we could do? While some pathetic souls are simply racist jackasses, most white folks of good will are simply embarrassed by the history. Some feel indicted by the memory and try to suppress it. Killing the memory is a losing strategy.
Remembering, honoring and learning from history
History should not be seen as threatening, but as liberating. It should be seen as liberating us from both the pain and the stain. That’s history’s gift. History has many lessons to teach. Isn’t it time we learned them?
Recent controversies over our Confederate past and the monuments erected to the valor of those who fought on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of justice should be viewed in the same manner. They are enduring symbols of both the pain and the stain. They are memorials to an era when people of good character and enormous courage fought for a very unrighteous, immoral cause. A cause that, only in the bright sunshine of today, can easily be seen as unjust and deplorable. Neither white folks nor black folks should ever forget those two things.
Embrace history. Embrace the pain. Embrace the stain. Make peace with history. Those who survived the holocaust have provided a good example and show the way forward.
If more of us had the courage to snuggle up to historical truth, there would be no need for bullet proof, 500 pound simple commemorative signs. When we attempt to murder memory, memory always fights back! Recognizing yesterday’s atrocities today will prevent a repeat tomorrow.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, expressed it profoundly:
“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory there would be no civilization, no society. No future.
“Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember I have a duty to reject despair.”
Lest we forget!
More on Elie Wiesel: A God Who Remembers
More from Steve Patterson: http://www.nemiss.news/patterson-evil-in-us-all/history, Holocaust, Mississippi history, New Albany MS