Thar He

The recent events in Egypt have kept me thinking about our history of non-violent protest in the United States.  Between the observance of Martin Luther King day in January and Black History month, I’ve tried to make a formal study of the speech that King delivered in Washington, D.C. in August, 1963.  You can read the text of the speech or watch it online.  I found that my appreciation grew the more I studied the speech and the events leading up to it.  In particular, I’ve come to appreciate how important it was for King to emphasize “the fierce urgency of now”, because at that time we still lived under a regime of racial segregation.  We see August, 1963 as a watershed moment for civil rights in America.  It is hard for us to now imagine how deeply our country  was divided by racial hatred and ignorance.  King and the others in the SCLC displayed enormous personal courage by their actions — it could not have been an easy thing to stand in the street as mounted policemen rode towards you, swinging lengths of rubber hose wrapped with barbed wire — but it is also important to remember that others before them also exemplified moral courage, sometime at great personal cost.  This post is about one of those men.

Mose Wright

In 1955, Mose Wright was 64 years old.  He lived as a sharecropper in Money, Mississippi with his wife Elizabeth.  Some members of his family had migrated north to Chicago and Detroit, but he stayed in the delta.  In August of 1955 his niece, Mamie Till Bradley, sent her 14 year-old son south from Chicago to visit family in Mississippi.  The boy’s name was Emmett Till.  He stayed with his uncle and aunt and his cousins and  worked the cotton fields around their home.  On day after work a group of the teenagers stopped off at store to buy some pop and gum as they were walking home.  The store was owned by a white man and his wife, but the woman was alone in the store that day.  Emmett apparently made the mistake of whistling at her.  Three days later, her husband and his half-brother came to the home of Mose Wright between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m.  They demanded to see “the boy that done the talkin'” and threatened to kill Mose if he did not let them into his home.  They kidnapped Emmett from his bed and his body was found in the river a few days later, shot through the head and severely beaten.

Mose Wright testifies in court

As the case moved towards trial,  Elizabeth Wright begged her husband not to testify, and to go into hiding because she feared for his life, but he was determined to do what he thought was right.   When the trial got underway, the jury which was selected consisted of 12 white men — no women, no black people.  The courtroom itself was a circus, as the judge insisted on segregating the courtroom and allowed black people to sit only in the balcony.  That included Emmett’s mother who had come down from Chicago for the trial, and congressman Charles Diggs from Michigan.  (Sheriff Strider remarked incredulously “There’s some nigger out there claims to be a congressman.”)

 
Wright was the primary witness for the prosecution and when the state’s attorney asked him if the man who abducted his nephew was present in the courtroom, Mr. Wright stood, pointed his finger, and said “Thar he.” (“There he is.”)  It was a remarkably courageous act.  For the first time, a black man had the strength to stand in open court and accuse a white man of a capital crime.  An illiterate field negro with a sense of justice had enough faith in the judicial system that he was able to take a step forward on behalf of all of us. 
 
Alas, his confidence in the judicial system was misplaced.  The jury returned a verdict of not guilty only 67 minutes after receiving the case.  One of the jurors later said that the only reason it took even that long was because they interrupted their deliberations in order to get something to drink.  Several years later, Look magazine paid the two defendants $4,000.00 for an interview, and in the interview they admitted they had kidnapped, beaten, and murdered Emmett Till.
 
Mose Wright showed us what it means to do what is right, and let the consequence follow.  We should be grateful that we are no longer a country where a 14 year-old boy gets lynched for whistling at a white woman.   We should be grateful for Wright’s bravery, and recognize that his action in 1955 made King’s speech in 1963 possible.  And while we appreciate the elegance and eloquence of Martin Luther King saying “I have a dream”, let us also appreciate the dignity and character of a man whose most famous words are “Thar he”. 
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I realize this post has no direct connection to Mormonism.  It is simply a story I thought was inspirational and underappreciated.                    

Comments

  1. Thanks for the story of this brave man. I Lived through that time and remember how much courage it took friends just to live their lives. Our neighbors in college housing in San Jose could not take their beautiful daughter to see her grandparents in Louisiana, because she was mixed race and they feared for their lives and hers. This was 1968.

  2. Mark, I think you painted with too large a brush. Yes, Moses did a brave act and should be remembered for it. But I question the wording of your post: Racism was being fought long before this.
    We already had Brown Vs BoE in 1954. Yes, there was still racism. But not all of our country was racist be any means. There was a great movement away from racism for some time in the country.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you, PeggyKay. It really is something to think of how much has changed, just in our lifetimes.

    Bob, even many people in the state of Mississippi were shocked at this crime.

  4. Mark, thanks. The saddest part of these discussions, though interesting, is the American apologetics. The brush you used was just right.

  5. Your post is a good reminder of the changes we have made–and a caution against those who opt for the status quo because of fear–I’m thinking of talk show hosts who supported the Mubarak regime this week.

  6. Thanks for this great story, which you told so well. We lived in Mississippi from 1975-77, and even then, twenty years later, this would have been a very couragious thing to do.

  7. Beautiful, Mark.

    It really is easy to laud the famous orator (and rightly so) and forget the courage of the uneducated and common. Thank for using your brush in this way – and God bless those like Mose Wright who should be examples we strive to emulate.

    I lived in Alabama in the early-mid 90’s. Some of the things I heard even then . . .

  8. Excellent, Mark.

  9. Thanks, Mark!

  10. Thanks Mark. I teach a unit on American Civil Rights Literature. I include the historical fiction novel MISSISSIPPI TRIAL 1955 as well as the non- fiction book GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER both by Chris Crowe of BYU. I am astonded at how little my students know about the Emmette Till murder and the history surrounding it. Mose Wright deserves his place in history as an American hero.

  11. Anytime I see African-Americans on a Mormon blog in the context of civil rights I automatically hark back to Dallin Oak’s unfortunate 2009 Rexburg address and cringe anew. He did not explain how “negroes” have moved so quickly from being the servants-of-our-servants to our very brothers-in-arms in the struggle for civil rights – theirs, to finally gain basic human dignity and self-determination; ours, to deny people we don’t like and don’t understand THEIR basic human rights.

    This is not on you, Mark. I admire your postings and read literally everything you write. Your intentions are laudable. But that’s the zeitgeist out here in gentile land. Those waters have been very thoroughly poisoned.

  12. pdmallamo,

    Thanks for adding more poison to the waters.

    If I was looking for an ally in civil rights, I would likely not look to my fellow Mormons. However, this post in about America. It is about humanity.

  13. Well, you SHOULD be able to look to your fellow Mormons as allies in civil rights.

    These are discussions that must occur. As a church, we were on the wrong side of this struggle until the outcome was a foregone conclusion, and our currrent right-wing proclivities certainly do not preclude continued racism. Institutional self-examination is not optional if we want to move forward as a people.

  14. Hey Chris, thanks for throwing the rest of us under the bus. The way you play the good liberal Mormon, clucking regretfully that all the rest of us are a bunch of ignornt racists, is pretty stomach-churning. But do whatever you have to in order to feel better about yourself.

    So. Pdmallamao, here’s the full text of Dallin Oaks speech, given in Rexburg in 2009:

    http://newsroom.lds.org/article/oaks-religious-freedom

    He doesn’t use the word “negro” anywhere. That’s what your quote marks mean when you talk about what someone else said. But Elder Oaks doesn’t talk about African-Americans at all. It’s just you who thinks you can throw around racial insults to score some points.

    Maybe your saying that because Mormons don’t liek gay marriage that we’re never allowed to talk about the civil rights movement. By your logic, there are a lot of African Americans who you wouldn’t allow to talk about their own history, because there on the other side of your pet issue. But Elder Oaks isn’t talking about civil rights, either. He’s talking about freedom of religion. Even if you don’t agree with freedom of religion, you still don’t need to make up words and smear an apostle as a racist.

  15. I am all for moving forward and we have had this discussion hundreds of times. I am not so worried about the institution. I am happy that our nation moved on despite the position of voluntary organizations like our Church. Likewise, the LDS position on gay marriage does not bother me because it will soon be politically irrelevant. I am more impressed with the position of Ted Olson than I am worried about talks given in Rexburg.

  16. Sam,

    Had I thrown you under a bus, you would be bloody and smeared all over the street. Maybe the bus tires made you miss the references to the civil rights movement in the talk. No, knowing you exist does not make me feel better about anything…now I go back to pretending you do not.

  17. - Time Out –

    If anyone feels (or continues to feel) the need to turn this thread into something ugly, I invite you to go elsewhere. Thanks.

    – Time In -

  18. Sorry.

  19. Mommie Dearest says:

    I found the OP to be an inspiration and added to my knowledge of racism in America during that time in our history.

    Thanks.

  20. It breaks my heart to think of that young man’s mother watching that trial, knowing that there will be no justice in this life for her son.

  21. This post made my day. A poignant story displaying very different parts of our human nature. I have a new slogan…Mose Knows.

  22. MikeInWeHo says:

    “As a church, we were on the wrong side of this struggle….”

    Yes, and you are on the wrong side of history on gay rights as well. It’s not just about SSM, either. That’s the least of it. The Church today treats gay families WORSE than it treated Blacks pre-1978. They could at least be members, albeit with restrictions. A gay couple cannot even be non-TR holding members.

  23. ExMoHoMoDon says:

    I think the point about Mormons having been MIA during the black civil rights struggle has been adequately made. Likewise, I think it isn’t necessary to draw too fine a point on the position I take that Mormons are on the wrong side of civil rights for homosexuals. May I say instead that Mormons have made a quantum leap in improving attitudes and positions towards black people in the last 30 years. Only can hope that they realize that homosexuals are entitled to dignity and equal protection under the law, even if it means that they come late to that realization. Since Prop 8, the numbers have shifted, with the majority of Californians now supporting full equal protection under the law for homosexuals, and those numbers will continue to shift.

  24. You can wacth a great docu on Emmet Till here

    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-untold-story-of-emmett-louis-till/

  25. What a reminder. This is the kind of story I want to share with my chidlren so they can recognize what life really was like. What a brave man.

  26. Thanks for reminding us that the civil rights fight is as much if not more a matter of the daily struggles of unmarked individuals, the moment by moment acts and thoughts which each individual makes as s/he goes through their day–only at times to be “brushed” broadly on the national stage. Institutional belief system are powerless in the face of individual acts of grace and charity based solidly in the individual’s conscience. That’s how people of different racial backgrounds became free to marry. This is why we will have gay marriages. It’s called civil disobedience.

  27. This was perfect, Mark.

    My mother’s extended family is from Arkansas and when we first went out for a family reunion in the mid 80’s, they were shocked when I burst into tears and said, “no one told me my family were racists!” They gently explained that of course they weren’t racists, they allowed a lone black man, who was born a slave and consequently “knew his place,” to live in their small town, (mostly owned by my family) as a symbol of their commitment to integration.
    I don’t think we could talk about Emmett Till or his poor family enough. Nothing will ever undo what was done to them. The least we can do is tell their stories and learn from them.

  28. Thanks for the great post. To bad the debate in the comments is getting a little ugly.

    Many of you are probably familiar with the name Devery Anderson editor of the Signature Book publications “Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845″ and “The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846.” He is also doing research on Emmet Till with the intent to publish a Bio of till as his next project. He has a website about Till and the subsequent Trial and aftermath http://www.emmetttillmurder.com/ he also talks a bit about his research on Till and his friendship with Till’s mother on signatures website in a posting mostly about his forth coming book “The Development of LDS Temple Worship 1846-2000: A Documentary History” that can be found at http://signaturebooks.com/2011/02/devery-anderson/ I look forward to Devery’s book, should be great stuff.

  29. First, let me say I understand the fatigue that many members have by those who point out our disgraceful past in reference to civil rights of many kinds. I also understand the desire to want to just forget about it and move on. I too really, really wish we could. Here is my problem with that stance. We are failing to hold ourselves to the same standards as a people that the gospel and Church ask of us individually.

    We as a people have NEVER repented for it in the very real sense that we expect of ourselves individually when we fall into serious sin. We have never officially acknowledged our errors in any concrete way, we have never even asked for forgiveness, nor even said we are sorry. What some seem to think is insincere muckraking and disloyatly might also be thought of as repentance. It should hurt.

    Wouldn’t it be great if as an institution we came out and really put this behind us once and for all instead of trying to take the easy way out? I have a feeling just like going to the bishop it would make us all feel a whole lot better…..

  30. Mommie Dearest says:

    Going to the bishop is overrated in a lot of cases. IMHO

  31. I knew when I saw the title you were referring to Mose Wright. What boggles my mind is the wives of the killers. What disgusting women they had to be.

    Pretty sure no Mormons were involved. Pretty sure lots of Baptists were. Let’s talk about that racist church.

  32. Sigh.

  33. Mark, I had never heard this story. In a thousand ways, I appreciate you sharing it.

  34. I am surprised that you had not heard of Emmett Till. This is a famous case, portrayed in movies, and I think it is in most HS history curricula. It was certainly discussed 25 years ago in an almost all white HS in a former confederate state when I attended.
    If it has been dropped in favor of recent and (usually) far less egregious cases of racial hatred, our collective memory will be degraded thereby.
    There are plenty of outrageous cases of hatred, including cold-blooded murder that are recent. The perps have motivations ranging from mental instability to all sorts of bigotry. Having a jury return a not-guilty verdict after very little deliberation with such a good eyewitness is the big difference. I seriously doubt you could get this ruling now, even if the prosecutor allowed an all white jury in the rural south to be seated.

  35. Very moving and inspirational Mark! The world we live in today is so much better in so many ways than only a few decades ago.

  36. I grew up a non-LDS in Montana, where there were very few blacks. Racism wasn’t understood there, as I would later find out. The Air Force placed me in Montgomery, AL for almost 17 years. Suddenly, even in the 1980s, we had to deal with racism and a long history of conflict that still was prevalent.

    Called into the stake mission presidency and as ward mission leader, we began sending missionaries to blacks in Montgomery. The racism found in the Church astonished me. I had no idea what racism was, until I found it among those I considered my brothers and sisters. Even more than a decade later, racism continued in the smaller branches, which we sought to overcome.

  37. On a related note, the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” wants the state of Mississippi to issue a license plate honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, and early leader of the KKK and the leader of a group of Confederate soldiers that massacred Black Union Troops in 1864 see link at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110210/ap_on_re_us/us_confederate_license_plates

  38. Rameumptom – I found that too when I went to Lousiana on my mission in the 80’s. (Of course I was also shocked by the reverse discrimination – I had many investigators persecuted by peers for studying with a “white church”) As I saw this outright discrimination I also began to appreciate the unintentional discrimination where well meaning people believed hurtful things or weren’t careful in how they spoke. They didn’t mean to hurt but did. I strongly think that it is encountering people of different cultures and races that is the best remedy. (I suspect our missions help a bit there for the overly white homogenous suburbs many Mormons find themselves raised within)

  39. RAH, I think many Mormons are embarrassed by our past. Even acknowledging the difficulty of in changing certain practices or doctrines in the absence of revelation I think that we as a people certainly didn’t live up to our own stated standards. Rather than acknowledge the pretty explicit commands of charity and treating all equally we focused instead on conspiracy and the ingroup/outgroup structures. I think that given our own past this is somewhat understandable. I just wish that perhaps we, as a people, had prepared ourselves for the revelation a few decades earlier. (For that matter I remain convinced that had a few key figures in the 19th century been more open here than a lot of heartache of decades would have been avoided – but I can’t judge given their own relative ignorance due to their culture as well as the other challenges they faced)

    However even if I won’t point fingers at individuals it’s clear that we as a people failed to be what we should have been. Perhaps the best solution is to try and see where we as a people can do better today. And then act on an individual level to achieve that. (Frankly if we do tend to even today largely adopt the mores of the societies we find ourselves within – how can we criticize those of the 19th or 20th century who did as well?)

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