I was almost one year old when an all-white jury in Mississippi acquitted Roy Bryant and John William Milam of the murder of Emmett Till after deliberating for 67 minutes. I was eight when Bob Dylan wrote a song about it. I was probably about 15 before I knew the history behind it. I was 17 when the first official release of Dylan’s song came out on Broadside Ballads, Vol. 6. I’m almost 59 now and Dylan’s “The Murder (Ballad/Death – it has appeared under varying titles over the years) of Emmett Till” is getting more airplay than it has in decades. Not radio airplay, but rather the modern day equivalent – social media, where songs can be posted and played on demand.
As a young boy, I was familiar with Norman Rockwell’s cover paintings for Saturday Evening Post. Everyone in America was. Rockwell painted a feel-good image of America – white America. And he did it on 323 different issues. Rockwell wasn’t prohibited from including black folks in his paintings, but it was The Post’s editorial policy that black folks could only be pictured in a service capacity. This wasn’t viewed as “racist” in those days and even liberal white folks were comfortable with the arrangement. In 1963, a year after Dylan’s early live performances of “Emmett Till,” Norman Rockwell painted his last Saturday Evening Post cover.
In January 1964, freed from the shackles of Saturday Evening Post policy, Rockwell painted “The Problem We All Live With,” which appeared as a centerfold in Look magazine. In stark contrast to his Post covers, “Problem” depicted a very different picture of America, one where Federal Marshals escorted a 6-year old black girl to school with “NIGGER” and “KKK” scrolled on a wall in the background. And with the use of the word “all” in the title, Rockwell correctly identified racism as, not just a problem to concern black folks, but one that should concern all folks. A year later, a preliminary sketch of Rockwell’s “Southern Justice: A Murder In Mississippi” depicting three slain Civil Rights workers, would make the pages of Look. The ugly face of racism and its consequences were now thrust in front of an entire nation by America’s feel-good daddy of the art world. That’s a measure of progress.
A couple days ago, an almost all-white jury acquitted George Zimmerman of the murder of another black teenager, Trayvon Martin. They deliberated for 16 hours. As everyone not buried under a rock knows, it sparked protests around the country and accusations of racial injustice in the court system. Denials came from all quarters, both liberals and conservatives alike. “We’ve come a long way. And isn’t George Zimmerman the brown-skinned son of a Peruvian mother?” Well, yes he is. He was also acting in a service capacity – a neighborhood watch volunteer guarding white folks’ “stuff” from hooded black teenagers. So, if you buy into the Saturday Evening Post’s version of where people of color should position themselves, it’s a perfectly understandable verdict. If 67 minutes of deliberation versus 16 hours of deliberation is our measure of progress… Well, then we should all be concerned.
Bill Glahn is a fork lift jockey from Missouri.