Newsletter by Mary Buffett
As we watch the trial for the killing of George Floyd, we must underline the importance of bearing witness.
Until the 1960’s, many of these terrible racial crimes took place in the shadows, long after sundown, with the full support of law enforcement and the full confidence that certain unspoken rules would never change. The gruesome stories of racial violence would often melt back into the shadows – and would be quickly forgotten.
In 2018, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened its doors in Montgomery, Alabama. According to its website, “it is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” It continues by noting that “more than 4,400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.”
For many in the South and beyond, the lines from Billie Holliday’s classic “Strange Fruit” were more than just a song; it was a grim reality of everyday White Supremacy, not only codified in the Jim Crow South, but elsewhere throughout the country. In the end, we may never have a full accounting of those who were brutalized. Many souls on the memorial were lost to history and simply listed as “Unknown.”
Did we bear witness to those lynchings?
We saw the photographs, perhaps decades later. We would see a variant of the same theme, a still photograph of a lifeless African American body, often hanging from a tree, with white local townsfolk who stood by as they smiled.
These terrible photos would make the trek northward, but they rarely made it into the major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, or The Washington Post. Instead, they found themselves on the front pages of African American daily newspapers like The Chicago Defender or The Amsterdam News. They did their level-best to bear witness but it is hard to make an impact when the stories were largely ignored outside of the African American community.
In 1955, a 14-year-old African American boy named Emmitt Till was kidnapped, brutally murdered in rural Mississippi after he was allegedly accused of whistling at a white woman. There is still a healthy debate if Till actually whistled at anybody. Till’s desecrated and lifeless body was found in Tallahatchie River, held down under an industrial fan blade. What remained was nearly mutilated beyond recognition. His body was delivered by train to his mother in Chicago, where she had an open casket funeral, so that all could see what happened to her son.
Photos of the mutilated corpse horrified the nation and it started to shine a light on a unique American problem. Mrs. Till did what she could to bear witness, but the all-white Mississippi jury returned with a “not guilty verdict” and the killers would later brag about the killing to a national magazine.
For the longest time, these cases of racial terrorism remained somewhat hidden in plain sight, largely within the regional confines of certain states. There might be the occasional story that seeped into the pages of The New York Times, but for the most part, there was benign neglect when it came to really tracking racial violence on a national level.
After a few column inches, these stories quickly faded away.
On Bloody Sunday in 1965, at the foot of the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, things began to change. While Sheriff Clark’s thugs on horseback attacked a peaceful march lead by the late John Lewis and Hosea Williams, something different happened. In the past, these marches could be put down with brutal force because the raw viscousness was rarely covered in full detail. Local news organizations often downplayed the severity of the violence.
However, this time cameras were rolling. These cameras could bear witness.
The story headlined each network’s nightly news broadcast, and a nation was horrified. This time, we all bore witness as helmeted police officers brutalized a group of non-violent marchers. Days later President Johnson introduced The Voting Rights Act, which in time, would become law.
As we move to the present, every person who witnessed and filmed the killing of George Floyd with their smartphones could bear witness. Those 9 ½ minutes in which the police officer snuffed the life from George Floyd could no longer be marginalized or forgotten. There could be no argument over the facts that led up to the killing.
The world bore witness on that Minneapolis corner.
It had been filmed by a variety of bystanders from a multitude of angles. In court testimony, many felt their own guilt for not actively doing more to stop the police officer from snuffing out Floyd’s life.
Unlike the Rodney King case, where an amateur videographer taped the beating with a clunky 1990’s style camcorder. We only knew about it because the cameraman just happened to be in the right place at the right moment.
Today there are over 260 million smartphone users in the United States. With one touch, people can capture misbehavior that once could have been easily explained away or allowed to fall between the cracks of justice. With a second touch, it can be uploaded to YouTube or Facebook for a global audience. Something as simple as a cell phone allows the average citizen to bear witness in a way that past generations could never have imagined.
It allows us to bear witness in real time. More than bearing witness, it allows us to share the process of bearing witness.
I wonder how many other George Floyds have either suffered in silence or quietly perished; their final moments sanitized by routine police paperwork. It makes you wonder back through the decades about others who were brutalized by night riders or vigilante groups and left nameless only to God.
Bearing witness also allows us to fix the problems that ail us as a nation and as a people.
As Lyndon Johnson said when he spoke before Congress and the nation to introduce the Voting Rights Act, “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”
He was right in 1965 and is still right today.