Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Reconstructing history: Emmett Till exhumed today

Today's the day. Emmett Till's casket was removed from its grave on the outskirts of Chicago in order for the body to be autopsied. I noted the recovery of the long-missing trial transcript, but it took a columnist for the Anniston, Ala., Star, Bruce Lowry, to pick up on a particularly nice detail. The way that Steve Whitaker, who wrote his master's thesis on the Till murder many years ago, got his hands on a copy of a transcript (later destroyed by water damage) was by plying a defense attorney with liquor:

“Mr. Whitaker says he obtained his copy of the transcript, a thick sheaf of onionskin with a binder clip, from the lead defense lawyer, J.J. Breland, after interviewing him for hours over a fifth of Jack Daniels.”

Lowry's take is right--this (the fact of it and the Times reporter's narrative excess) is Faulknerian. "This is the sort of mythic tale-telling that still fascinates the rest of the country with the South, that still yells out for the rest of the world to want to come and look into our closets and attics and dust away our cobwebs to see what else Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty and Walker Percy and Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor forgot to tell them about us."

Even today, even voiced by someone like Lowry, who favors getting to the truth of this matter "because it is the right thing to do," in the South there is no small amount of defensiveness over race. "[H]ow many Emmett Tills," Lowry asks, "will we have to dig up before the story concludes? Will we ever find an end to it, find peace?"

Southern defensiveness is a powerful thing. It colored all historical memory since the Civil War, especially that of Reconstruction. At a conference here last fall, historian Thomas Holt put it squarely before us that what passed for civil rights legislation in the 1950s was woefully lacking on enforcement because of the dominant memory of Reconstruction. The "pervasive image of injustice done to southern whites" during that awful time resulted, almost 100 years later, in laws that had no teeth. Only now, as part of an ongoing reevaluation of southern history and memory, are we able to see the contours of what was really attempted with a little more objectivity. (Jim Leloudis' telling of the Reconstruction history of UNC is useful in this regard.)

Recently Ed Ayers has gone so far as to suggest that Reconstruction, when viewed not through Scarlett O'Hara's eyes but as "America's first attempt to transform a defeated society through a sustained military occupation," has useful lessons for our involvement in Iraq. I guess it's never too late to learn.

UPDATE: on the Afro-Am listserv there's a discussion about why the FBI didn't more aggressively get involved in the Till murder. The toothless civil rights legislation of the 1950s may have been part of the problem.

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