When I learned about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, civil rights and Jim Crow laws, American schools, movies, television and politics were also black and white in racial terms.
|Jim Crow Laws in America|
Martin Luther King changed television pictures of black America by helping place racism in the 1950s and '60s in every living room in the United States .
Black children my age being abused by southern white law officials like Bull Conner did not stop me from watching fifteen-minute national news broadcasts on television. That's what television was for me back then, a medium that led to change in the Jim Crow laws in America.
Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks taught nonviolence in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a tactic used later on television.
What I realized over the years is that black and white people were set in their ways of thinking. And their behavior was based on their ways of thinking. Whites were accustomed to being considered by society as superior; blacks in society were forced to pretend they were inferior. It takes a lot of energy and creativity on both sides of an issue to break old habits. But it can be done.
Television and movies were a big part of shaming people into changing their behavior and changing the way the America looked at itself. Even the staunchest haters and believers in inequality cringed at the sight of themselves and those who represented their views on screen.
As a little girl watching the television images with a family trying to reassure me, I cringed, too. There were days when I was afraid to leave the house. I feared that I would be attacked by a mob. I had never seen a mob except on television. But mobs were real. My Jim Crow school district provided black students no school buses, so we walked to school in groups for security. Going to school and getting whatever education available to African American was never questioned. Education was the way in and the way out--the way into a better life and the way out of a bad life. Even better than primary education was a college education.
College was the goal during Jim Crow laws and still the lesson today.
Television meant that other Americans were seeing what I saw when Martin Luther King spoke on television or little children were attacked by police dogs and high-powered water hoses. Television meant change. Things had to change--change the way we went to school, change the lessons in the school books, change the politics of education and entertainment, change the way we were treated when we went outside our neighborhood. One reason my mother took me to the movies was to illustrate a different lifestyle, not the lifestyle of people I knew, but the lifestyle of people who did not have to worry about being spat upon or police dog attacks initiated by law enforcement officials.
Segregated Movie Theater
Taking me to the movies, traveling with me to other parts of the nation and reading about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and civil rights were my mother's insurance against my being satisfied with Jim Crow.
In 1939, Ethel Waters, star of movies, radio and stage, became the first African American to appear on television, in her own special, "The Ethel Waters Show."
In the early days of television, when the medium was still an experiment, radio was still the primary vehicle for popular dramatic programs and music distribution by jazz vocalists like Ethel Waters. That was before investors thought of television as a profitable new industry to rival radio. There were exceptions. Star of film and radio, Ethel Waters, became the Rosa Parks of television, opening doors for the generation of black actors and filmmakers.
But soon after Waters' television debut, Jim Crow invaded television as it had radio. Many black actors like Ethel Waters either left television and radio in protest or settled for demeaning roles as kitchen help, who sweated over household chores by hand and were the butt of jokes.
My mother subscribed to national news, homemaking and fashion magazines, and newspapers from around the country. That's how my mother was--curious. But more than that, she wanted me to know as much about the world in which I lived as possible, using movies, media and travel to other parts of the country to accomplish her goal. However, when we first started going to the movies, there were white movies in which black actors played subservient roles to white actors; and there were nationally distributed Black Hollywood movies, known as race movies with black casts produced by black filmmakers.
One of the movies my mother and I went to see in 1962 was To Kill a Mockingbird.
I'd already read the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the year before when I received a copy for my birthday. I loved the way Harper Lee wrote the story of a white father, who was a lawyer, defending a black man who had been accused of raping a white woman. I must confess, though, I hated the theme of the story. Even as a child, I knew of cases where black men were accused of some insult to a white woman.
Lynching and other forms of violence exemplified the lives of many African Americans in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as late as the 1960s, nearly one hundred years after the Civil War was fought to end slavery. Emmett Till was just one of those cases that received national attention from the black media and ignited feelings of horror that led to an inquiry of his murder in the black community when photographs of the Till's brutalized body were published in the black magazine Jet. The NAACP was outraged. Look Magazine brought further attention to the case.
Emmett Till had been beaten and tortured. When he was found, he had a heavy cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire before being tossed into the Tallahatchie River.
|Emmett Till, Jet Magazine, September 15, 1955|
Two days later, fishermen on the river found the body of Emmett Till.
I remember seeing the pictures of his battered and mutilated face in a national black magazine. Till's face in no way resembled the handsome 14-year-old he once was.
His mother was brokenhearted having lost her only child to such hate. Black America was enraged. I was enraged, too! Protests began. Stories, articles and photographs appeared in black magazines and newspapers nationwide. However, the black community had no power to pursue a case against a powerfully unjust legal system. In fact, Susan Klopfer, author of Emmett Till, revealed that she had never even heard of Emmett Till before her research.
No real investigation of the Emmett Till case ensued and the case was soon forgotten by law enforcement in the region. And its consequences were used as a lesson to other African Americans to follow if they stepped out of line racially. In the book, Inherently Unequal, using court records and accounts of the period, Lawrence Goldstone chronicles how, "by the dawn of the 20th century the U.S. had become the nation of Jim Crow laws, quasi-slavery, and precisely the same two-tiered system of justice that had existed in the slave era."
Emmett Till's life certainly came to a tragic ending, unhappy in every way possible for his mother, show teenage son, Emmett, arrived in Money, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, on August 21, 1955, to visit relatives for the summer. On August 24, 1955, he and a cousin went to the store, where Emmett was accused of whistling at the white store owner's wife.
For many years, the Till case would be referenced in civil rights speeches again lynching and violence of African Americans in the South.
|Martin Luther King|
Four months after the Emmett Till case, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 and started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, under the supervision of Martin Luther King The Montgomery Bus Boycott, too, was under the heavy scrutiny of television, magazine and film. This protest and others to follow were spurred into action by the Till case.
In his speech on May 12, 1963, Martin Luther King preached about, ‘‘the crying voice of a little Emmett Till, screaming from the rushing waters." The Emmett Till case was reopened by the Justice Department in 2004.