(CNN) — On August 31, 1955, the body of a black youth was found in the Tallahatchie River, near Money, Mississippi. He was naked except for the barbed wire wound around him, which was attached to a 75-pound fan meant to sink him down to the riverbed. One eye was gouged out and his skull badly fractured and with a bullet hole in it. He was, in fact, so badly beaten that his uncle was able to make a positive identification only because he recognized the youngster’s initialed ring.
His name was Emmett Till. The 14-year-old Chicagoan had been sent to spend the summer with his uncle in Mississippi, where he was lynched for reputedly flirting with or whistling at a white woman (Carolyn Bryant Donham, who, in a book published in 2017, recanted her original account of this event).
When Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, was told how her only child had been murdered, she demanded that his body be returned to Chicago. Seeing the disfigured remains at the train station, she collapsed — but then she called Ebony and Jet magazines, telling them that she wanted the whole world to see what she saw. At the funeral home, a mortician offered to “touch up” Till’s body. The mother said no and instructed that the casket be left open.
“I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till,” she said.
Like Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley 63 years ago, Lucy McBath and Lezley McSpadden want to leave the casket open.
The day after Thanksgiving 2012, Lucia “Lucy” McBath answered the phone. It was the father of Jordan Davis, her 17-year-old son. He told her that Jordan had been shot and killed at a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station by a white man who, as it turned out, complained that Davis and his friends had been playing music too loudly in their car.
Lucy McBath grieved. She also quit her job as a Delta flight attendant to become a full-time gun control activist. Then, on July 24, 2018, she won the Democratic nomination in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The month before, she told Elle magazine that she had been “afraid” to run for office. “I kept saying, I don’t know how to be a politician. … I’ve never done that before.” But after she won the primary, she tweeted, “… I intend to show the good people of #GA06 what a tough, determined mother can do.”
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American resident of Ferguson, Missouri, just north of St. Louis, was walking with a friend down the center of Canfield Drive. Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson believed that Brown matched the description, fresh off his radio, of a shoplifting suspect. At one minute after noon, he drove up on the two young men. Two minutes later, an altercation ensued, the pair fled, and Wilson gave chase on foot. The official report by the district attorney and the medical examiner indicates that Brown had turned and was approaching Wilson when the officer fired repeatedly, hitting Brown, who was unarmed, six times.
On August 10, 2018, Michael Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, stood “near the spot where her son was gunned down” and announced she was running for the Ferguson city council.
“Almost four years ago to this day,” she said in a news conference, “I ran down this very street, and my son was covered in a sheet. It broke me, you know. It brought me down to my knees and made me feel crippled, as if I could do nothing else anymore. I learned to walk again, and this is one of my first steps.” She pledged that, if elected, she would focus on community policing, economic equality, and access to health care for all of Ferguson’s young children. She also promised to work on rebuilding the relationship between the police and the residents of Ferguson, two-thirds of whom are black.
Lucy McBath and Lezley McSpadden want the world to see and to never forget what happened to their sons. They do this, in part, for personal healing. But as Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney who represented the Brown family, told me in a phone conversation on August 15, their “running will help heal their communities.”
I believe it will help to heal the entire nation. These grieving mothers have declared that they, who have every reason to give up on America, are doing no such thing. On the contrary, thrust onto the public stage by deep personal loss, they have decided to become instrumental in changing politics. Win or lose, their very candidacy will elevate consciousness and be a conduit to restorative justice.
But I do want them to win.
I want them to win because, with every reason to despair, they have instead chosen to engage, to rebuild police-neighborhood relations, race relations, and the basic fabric of our communities and our country. These women, who know the terrible cost of a breakdown in these three social domains, now possess a powerful motive to drive change.
And make no mistake, in recent years — in recent months, weeks, and days — police-neighborhood relations, race relations, and community solidarity have all been under assault, and they have all deteriorated. Political leadership at the very top has been not merely indifferent and incompetent, but has actively encouraged dissension among us, as if creating national division were its goal.
So, we need these women, and we need other men and women like them. We need Americans who choose not to cling to some 1955 mythology of bygone American “greatness” but who want American greatness right now and for the future — a future in which the likes of Emmett Till, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown need not fear to make their way in America.
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