Today, we started our holiday weekend in North Carolina by having a Southern biscuit sandwich breakfast and driving out to Greensboro, North Carolina, to visit the International Civil Rights Museum. Although the Little Rock Nine at Little Rock Central High School tends to be more well known and covered in American history courses around the country, the “A and T Four,” also known as the Greensboro Four, the four black activist students at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical University, is also a notable group: In February 1960, they protested segregation in the form of sitting at the “Whites Only” lunch counter at the local Woolworth’s, which ended up sparking a movement across the entire south that emulated this sit-in against “separate but equal” in the thousands. The museum provides a fully guided tour, and it is built where the old Woolworth’s with the lunch counter actually was. They preserved the lunch counter/diner just as it was back in 1960 when these sit-ins occurred. It reminded me of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis that was preserved where MLK was assassinated by building it into the Lorraine Motel where he was shot and killed on his balcony in 1968.
Our guide, Dillon, did an incredible job recounting endless facts of the atrocities that happened during this period in our history and the Civil Rights Movement in general, and you could tell by the way he talked that he truly cared and was emotionally invested in social progress for all. He became the most choked up recounting the lynching of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who came from Chicago (non-segregated) down to Mississippi (obviously segregated) in 1955 to visit relatives and was kidnapped, mutilated, shot and killed, and then dumped with weights attached to him into a local river. All of this happened to him simply because he had a debated interaction with a white woman, who ended up accusing him of touching and flirting with her. This led to her husband and his half-brother kidnapping him and brutally murdering him. They said that Emmett didn’t understand the social and racial ‘caste’ system of the South.
Emmett’s name is memorable because he came up many times during history courses, and his sad, gruesome story is at every major civil rights museum and monument across this country, including the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Brown vs. Board of Education historic site, the Rosa Parks Museum, among others, that we’ve visited. His mother, so enraged and distraught at the injustices her young son faced, chose to have an open-casket ceremony so that the world could see with their own eyes what the white racist South had done to her poor son. This is not something anyone would wish on anyone, even those they hated.
Not only did those two white men get away with the lynching, they publicly said while being recorded that they did not think they did anything wrong. They were fully acquitted. Nothing ever happened to the white female accuser, even though she very recently admitted (because she’s still alive) that she actually lied during her testimony and what she said Emmett did never actually happened. Even though I’d heard and read about the story before, Dillon gave a far more detailed account of what happened, and it disgusted me when it suddenly hit me: I realized how similar this was to the false accusations that white people have today against black people that cause the police to accost, arrest, and even shoot and kill black people. These stories have become more and more reoccurring in the news in the last several years. A black owner of a popular hipster lemonade shop in San Francisco almost got arrested while opening the doors of his own business one morning because a white person called the police, saying that it looked like some black man was breaking and entering into the shop. A white man prank called 911 to lie and say that a black man was pointing a rifle at people while walking through Walmart in Ohio; the police showed up and shot innocent John Crawford, simply because he was a black man. Crawford is now dead, and his family is trying to get justice and is failing to get the peace that they deserve. And there’s also the case that seemed the most senseless to me in Philadelphia when a white female worker calls 911 because of two black men in the store who haven’t bought anything. These two men got arrested for “trespassing,” and Starbucks in the end had to mutually agree to let that white female worker go, and publicly apologize to the world for how stupid and short-sighted they had been in this occurrence.
All of these stories are the modern day 2018 versions of the Emmett Till lynching. When I hear these stories, I think it’s just the more “acceptable” and “nuanced” way to be racist and discriminate now. No one wants to acknowledge it, especially our Republican and white supremacist “friends.” But funnily enough, when I did a Google search for “Emmett Till” after we left Greensboro, this July 2018 Huffington Post article entitled, “The Word of a White Woman Can Still Get Black People Killed,” is one of the first results that shows up, which hits the nail on the head of all the feelings I had leaving the museum.
These echos, these parallels, these evolved iterations of discrimination, these are just one of a myriad of reasons that history is so important. You’re supposed to understand the past to learn what’s worked, what hasn’t, and not to repeat the horrors of the people before us. If you want to ignore the past, you will just be more narrow-minded for it in disregarding the atrocities of the past, and instead, you will continue these atrocities into the future and blindly believe we live in a new, different world. The world is certainly getting better, but that’s because of the people who are actively working to create progress and social justice for all, not the ones who are just sitting around denying anything is wrong to begin with.
But you know what also made me sad visiting a museum like this? In the same way with really well written, balanced pieces of everything our country debates about, from gun control to healthcare to gender and race-based discrimination to immigration, the people who would truly benefit from learning all of this will likely never come. Ever. And that is really depressing to me.