How Long Does it Take to Make Change?

In August 1955, a fourteen-year-old boy named Emmett Till went to visit his cousin Simeon Wright in Money, Mississippi.  Emmett Till was African American.  One day during the visit, the two boys ventured to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, when Emmett decided to whistle at Carolyn Bryant, the white store clerk who owned the store along with her husband, Roy Bryant.  That night Roy Bryant showed up at Simeon Wright’s house with his half-brother, and dragged Emmett from his bed.  Emmett was beaten, shot, and dumped into the Tallahatchie River.  A seventy-five pound gin fan had been tied to his neck with barbed wire. [1]

The lynching of Emmett Till took place ninety years after the end of the Civil War and twenty-one years after Langston Hughes wrote The Ways of White Folks.  Given that lynching continued to be a major problem in the United States more than a century after the Civil War, I ask my audience this, how long does it take to make change?

Langston Hughes was a social activist during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.  He used his literary abilities to showcase race relations between blacks and whites during that time period.  In “Home,” Roy Williams, an African American, journeys back home to the South after spending many years abroad.  In Europe, Williams was a well-off and respected musician who was treated as an equal among white Europeans.  The European mannerisms he learned while away from home would eventually lead to his death.  As shown by the tragic death of Emmett Till, race relations in the South were tense; the slightest wrong movement could provoke a lynching.  Such was true for Roy Williams whose casual conversation about music with a white woman led to his being beaten to death and hung from a tree.  Because he had been treated as an equal in Europe, Williams forgot about the dangers of living in the South.  Talking to a white woman was socially acceptable in Europe but fatalistic in America. [2]

“Father and Son,” another story published within The Ways of White Folks tells of the relationship between a white sharecrop owner and the Negro son he refused to acknowledge.  Like Roy Williams in “Home,” Bert Lewis’ mannerisms led to his downfall.  Lewis believed he should not be treated any differently because he was black; he demanded respect from the postal clerk, the black sharecroppers, the white men in the town, and above all, his father.  Lewis’ quest to be recognized as Colonel Thomas Norwood’s son ends with him shooting his father, and eventually, himself.  Norwood’s refusal to acknowledge his son is another example of how strongly divided race relations were in the South.  Acknowledging Bert would have lessened Norwood’s standing in the white community.  The story ends with a newspaper report about the death of Norwood and two of his sons.  The story states, “It’d be a hell of a lot better lynching a live nigger…” [3]

Langston Hughes used his writings to bring the current status of race relations in the United States to the attention of the American people.  However, despite his efforts, lynchings and intense racial tensions continued to exist even after the outbreak and conclusion of the Second World War.  Not until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s were the Jim Crow Laws abolished, and lynchings strictly punished by law.

Today, in the year 2012, how much has changed—since Langston Hughes came out with the stories in The Ways of White Folks, since Emmett Till was lynched, since the Civil Rights Movement?  How can we, as Americans, make our country an equal and safe place for all?

[1] Benson, Christopher, “Eyewitness Account:  Emmett Till’s cousin Simeon Wright seeks to set the record straight,” Chicago Magazine, January 2010.

[2] Hughes, Langston, “Home,” The Ways of White Folks (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1933), 33-49.

[3] Hughes Langston, “Father and Son,” The Ways of White Folks (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1933), 207-255.

9 thoughts on “How Long Does it Take to Make Change?

  1. I believe that the change that needs to take place revolves around the idea of an “us” versus a “them” in a still racialized American society. In Hughes’ writings and in the Jim Crow era South the whites were clear about the “othering” taking place. In modern day America some racial groups are attacked, mimicked, and criticized by the media and popular culture. They might not be being literally lynched but they are opened up to violence and made a public spectacle. We claim to have moved on from an “us” versus “them” mentality but I don’t always see the proof.

  2. I was interested in finding out a little bit more about the history of lynching and the people who risked their lives and livelihood in order to speak out against such an atrocious act. I stumbled across this website:http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAlynching.htm. I was surprised to see that the most recent lynching happened in 1981. Nineteen-eighty-one people!! That was only 31 years ago, and only four years before I was born! It leaves me wondering if we should just be satisfied that change does occur, no matter how slow, or feel disgusted that change does happen at such a slow rate. My inclination is to be disgusted, but maybe I’m not one to talk when I come from a time when persecution is not obliterated from the social and economic landscape of our country.

  3. It is hard to know how to change such a deep rooted emotion as hate…I think the best way is to keep an ongoing community conversation about all the forms of hate and how it affects us on a daily basis.

    1. In going off of what both Jenna and Cate wrote about this deep rooted emotion and feelings of “us and them”, I started thinking about what we read last week in class. The idea of becoming ‘Americanized” or part of a larger whole, would seem to be a way to bring people together, and mitigate this us and them idea. Is time the element that is required to lessen the attitude that some people are an “us”, or part of this white American, homogenized, and acceptable group? It would seem that many black Americans, whose families have been in America longer than many immigrant groups, would have been accepted into this “us” group over time. Is it that race is such a visual thing for many people?

      1. I wonder if there will always be an “us” and a “them”, with both groups just continually changing?

  4. Casey’s comment on the most recent lynchings in 1984 is shocking. This spurred me to remember a map an old public history professor showed me and i found it again at http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-map. This map shows the number of Hate groups in the United States. To me, this proves the “us” vs ” them” mentality that Cate was referring to. While lynching isn’t legal, these groups keep the same ideals that fuel such violence (depicted in this story) alive. Passing it on from generation to generation, it is hard to keep hope that our future will be brighter than our dark past.

  5. Given that lynching continued to be a major problem in the United States more than a century after the Civil War, I ask my audience this, how long does it take to make change?

    In response to the above question, I’m thinking that change will take just as long, if longer, than the process that lead to radicalized society we live in today. Conceptions about “difference” have been in the making and in practice (via laws and in the infrastructure of institutions) for hundreds of years. For this reason, “change” for the better will also be an evolution, a process. However, in order for anything to happen, our society must acknowledge and agree that change is needed. What concerns me most is that we are living a world that wants to move forward with the notion that we live in a color-blind society. For me, this idea of color-blindness disregards the face that people have and are continually treated different not only because of their ethnicity, but also because of their class and gender.

  6. While lynching is a particularly American activity is it unique in substance, or only style? Humans have been cruelly violent towards “the other” as long as they’ve been able to write. In order to change it will likely take a lot of effort, a lot of educating, and a lot more time.

  7. I think another important thing to remember as well is that, although lynching hasn’t been seen since the 1980’s, there are still hate crimes happening that end in violent death. I still remember the Matthew Shepard case from 1998. Unfortunately, race isn’t the only thing that we use to categorize people as “other”.

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