The recent kerfuffle between Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Beck over the former's conflation of Trayvon Martin's and Emmett Till's deaths into a single example of racially-motivated violence -- separated by nearly six decades -- once again reveals a disappointing trend of history-as-I-see-it written by celebrities.
Unquestionably and understandably, Ms. Winfrey is a visible, voluble, and passionate champion for civil rights, not just for African Americans, but for anyone left by the side of the road along humanity's journey to equality in myriad categories. A-Listers and red-carpet strollers too numerous to mention frequently espouse, and often contribute time and money to, very worthy causes with the genuine -- I see no reason not to assume so -- desire to right wrongs, and affix their enlightened world views to the darker corridors of human nature. Fine. That is their prerogative; they are more than welcome to build schools, feed the hungry, nurse the sick, and take up the swords of righteousness if they so choose.
Then we have Glenn Beck and other commentators, voices, pundits -- whatever you want to call them (and you have many things to call them, undoubtedly) -- of the left, right, and middle sociopolitical roads who see their sole purposes in life to be gadflies, scolds, or, in some cases, self-appointed paradigms of populist propriety. They, too, have significant funding -- not from acting careers, perhaps, but certainly from their own brand of theater -- and they use those deep wells of fiscal empowerment to energize the electrons of radio, television, and the Internet. Fine. Other than manipulating the electronic medium of modern communications, what Beck and his colleagues do bears striking resemblance to the same surrogate political voices operating in the earliest days of our republic. One need only survey the editorial landscape that existed in Jefferson's and Adams' days to appreciate the long history of loud, crashing, and bitter voices shouting across the social and political arenas. Refer to the presidential election of 1800, as Stephen F. Hayward did in the April 11, New York Times. Oprah vs. Beck isn't new material. It is our history.
And therein lies a key word. History. It may not be totally ineluctable -- there are those who simply refuse to turn toward it or learn from it -- but often within it are facts, and, as John Adams is credited with saying, facts are stubborn things. Let's not let contemporary celebrity be confused for historical accuracy.
I was alive, but too young to understand the news, when Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. But I was very much alive, and cognizant, and living in the deep South in the early 1960s when midnight kidnappings and subsequent shootings and lynchings were happening less than a hundred miles my home. Fear and loathing toward African Americans and white civil rights advocates in the hatred-steeped communities in neighboring Mississippi were real and palpable emotions. The names of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner still mean a lot to me and my generation.
Their deaths -- their murders, like that of Emmett Till -- were so far removed from anything like Trayvon Martin's death, not only in the way they happened, but in the time they happened, and in the place, and in the atmosphere. They were fueled by such hatred absent any spark of humanity among the killers, the police, the juries... and the local media.
We will never know if Trayvon Martin's death in an otherwise peaceable community in Florida was calculated on a racial profile -- even some jurors claim they were torn. What we think we know is unreliable and unwitnessed. George Zimmerman lives with the truth; I suspect his sleep is uneasy in any case. The Oprahs and Becks each declaim with certainty that their moral opponents' opinions about Trayvon Martin's death in comparison to Emmett Till's are hollow and without merit. It is hyper, if not hysteric, theater writ large across social media, but it is not history.
We do know -- history is there to urge us to know -- that what happened to Emmett Till near Money, Miss., in 1955, was racial, it was hateful, it was witnessed and paraded about like a triumphal banner. Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till died too young, and their families' lives were changed forever; connected over the years by those facts, they share a common bond. Beyond that, there is simply no comparison.
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