Blog #16: Breaking Through Silence and Shame
On March 30th of this year, the front page of the Washington Post featured a photo of John Johnson. At 80-years-old he looks like a history detective, complete with dark coat and fedora. Much of his life he’s been obsessed with uncovering the truth about what newspapers in 1926 called a “crime of collective bestiality.”
A mob of 50 whites stormed the jail in Wytheville, Virginia, where Johnson’s father stood guard. They shot a young black Raymond Byrd, accused of a statutory offense against a white women. They dragged his body through the streets, and hung him from a tree.
Johnson explains his obsession: “I want the history out there…. I wish there would be some way that you could get those descendants still living to sit down at the table and say, you know, we’re sorry for what happened…. Admit it. I want them to admit it.” To open conversations with descendants of the lynchers like Beverly Hoch, however, Johnson treads gently. Hoch urges him not to publish his research, fearing the pain her many local relatives would feel. Despite Johnson’s “earnest politeness,” even after 93 years, silence and shame remain.
The conspiracy of silence has always been powerful. As headlines from the time explained, “Futile Attempt is Made to Discover Guilty Persons in Virginia Outrage.” The 70 witnesses interviewed by authorities didn’t talk. I wouldn’t have known about it if it were not for John Johnson. It would be, like Raymond Byrd, dead to the world.
One of the most famous lynchings in America is described in Tim Tyson’s new book, The Blood of Emmett Till. Tyson managed to break through the silence of the former Carolyn Bryant. When the young adolescent Emmett Till spoke freshly to her in 1955, her husband, Roy Bryant, decided to teach the boy a lesson. Along with J. W. Milam they mutilated Till, and walked free. Only recently Carolyn Bryant spoke about it to Tyson. “They’re all dead now anyway,” she told him in nearly a whisper.
For John Johnson the history is alive. Though he admits that things have gotten better, silence is still a problem, especially in Virginia. After a chorus of protests, you don’t hear much noise anymore about Governor Northam’s “blackface” scandal. Will that fade away, or will we learn to face our history. As James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Lesson #62: Acts of racial violence nearly a century old still make the front page.
Lesson #63: Shame, handed down through generations, enforces silence.
Lesson #64: If it were not for Mamie Till's effort and courage to share her grief with the world, Emmett's death just might have been another one of the reported 4000 plus lynchings.
Lesson #65: Emmett Till’s murder launched the civil rights movement, but those guilty only suffered the ostracism of their community after they admitted their guilt to Lifemagazine for cash.
Lesson #66: Today’s news cycle often moves so fast that issues concerning racism often are left unresolved.