“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
“If we do not learn history, we are condemned to repeat it.”
Americans often turn to these two aphorisms in discussions of public policy and usually for good reason. Both emphasize the value of openly and honestly confronting the truth – wherever it may lead.
Strangely and maddeningly, however, both maxims frequently meet resistance when it comes to discussions of race. This fact has been recently on display across the country as some politicians have turned a heretofore obscure graduate school concept that links many aspects of modern society to their roots in racism – Critical Race Theory – into an all-purpose political bogeyman that supposedly threatens the tender psyches of white K-12 students.
Perhaps the real reason for this resistance to truth-telling and sunlight is that, deep down, its authors know just how effective both sunlight and an honest appraisal of history can be in changing hearts and minds (and even the course of history).
One of the main reasons that integrated schools are so important is because they provide an opportunity for affluent students to learn “soft skills,” like learning to respect other cultures. Learning about systemic racism aids the process. Until we become truly introspective and proactive about our race problem, the light placed on it now just shows that the same stuff will continue to happen.
Two families that helped shine a bright and helpful light on racism in this country are the Tills and Arberys. They decided exposure was the path to awareness, even if it might not always provide an immediate path to justice.
It is not hyperbolic to say that the story of 1950s America must include the death of Emmett Till. We tell the story often, but there is no way to ensure that everyone has been taught what happened, and it deserves to be repeated again and again.
Emmett Till was 14 years old when he visited his relatives in Mississippi from his home in Chicago. The stories vary somewhat from this point, but there is agreement that this Black boy took note of (and perhaps whistled at) a white woman. This was clearly an offense in Mississippi and, unfortunately, a capital one. Till was beaten so bad when he was killed, there was nothing that could be done to make him presentable for a funeral.
That’s when Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, decided to expose the racism that killed her son. She insisted on having his funeral with an open casket. She exposed what hatred based on race would do to her son. He was dead and mangled for no other reason than he may have whistled at a white woman.
Perhaps the newsworthiness of the brutality made the Mississippi criminal justice system put two men on trial for Till’s murder. We do know that there would be more heroism and more exposure to the killing brought by Till’s family.
At great personal risk, Emmett Till’s uncle was called to testify. This was not a small gesture. Two men were on trial for killing his nephew for offending them. He was trying to put them in prison. He also likely knew a jury of all white men would not convict. When asked if he could identify a man who came to his door to get his nephew, Moses Wright pointed and said, “Thar he.”
Even though no one was convicted of murdering Emmett Till, the light it shined on racism in the United States still tells the story today. We do not know how many people were killed for things that offended white people in Jim Crow America. Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and countless others were brutally victimized because of their race in the post-Jim Crow era. What we do know is that exposure of the truth in at least one story exists because of the bravery of Emmett Till’s family.
One sees a similarly inspiring pattern in the much more recent case of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was a 25-year-old Black man who jogged in a Georgia neighborhood a few times. One his last run, he stopped by a property under construction. While there was never any evidence that he did anything but look around the property, three white men decided that it was their responsibility to protect property in the neighborhood and that Arbery was a threat.
Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddy” Bryan heard Arbery was running down the street and decided to chase him. The armed McMichaels felt they had to right to make Arbery stop and answer their questions as if they were law enforcement officers. Bryan cut off Arbery’s path and Travis McMichael pulled out a rifle and shot Ahmaud Arbery to death.
A state trial ended with three guilty verdicts, which led to two life-without-parole sentences for the McMichaels and a life with the possibility of parole verdict for Bryan. While history had previously shown that there should be no expectation of justice in the case, the guilty verdicts and sentences were just and appropriate.
In the aftermath of that verdict, however, federal prosecutors sought to negotiate a plea deal with the men with respect to federal charges they faced. The deal would have avoided a further public airing of their crimes and sent them to federal prison immediately – a venue that is widely considered much more desirable than state prison (and that the defendants preferred).
Here is where the heroism of Arbery’s family was demonstrated. They said “no.” They wanted a brighter light shined on the violation of Ahmaud’s civil rights and refused to sign off on the federal plea bargains. As a result, the judge in the federal case rejected the pleas and a public trial ensued.
The federal trial of Arbery’s murderers clearly revealed their racism. Whereas the state trials allowed observers to infer that racism was at work in the murder, the federal trial provided the words. Text messages from Travis McMichael contained several racist themes and the use of the n-word. William Bryan’s text messages used similarly racist language and, of course, the n-word. But for the refusal of the Arbery family to accept the pleas, the blatant racism behind the defendants’ horrific acts might never have been fully brought to light.
The bottom line: Sunshine has yet to fully disinfect racism. We have not fully learned from history. Black Americans continue to be murdered because of their race. Thankfully, however, families of victims continue to teach us the full and accurate history by spotlighting the evil. And as long as we continue to shine the light, and brave families act in the interest of their loved ones, they also act for all of us. Perhaps, we will still find our way out of the darkness as a result.
Christopher Hill teaches and practices law in Raleigh.