When Black Lives Surely Didn’t Matter

Many whites counter the Black Lives Matter movement with the rejoinder “all lives matter,” a way of ignoring the ugly American history of torturing, shooting and lynching blacks, as Gary G. Kohls recalls, citing two notorious cases.

By Gary G. Kohls

Sixty-one years ago this week (July 25, 1955), an innocent 14-year-old black youth, Emmett Till, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by an angry vigilante mob of white racists in Money, Mississippi. Ninety-six years ago last month (June 15, 1920), three innocent black men were tortured and murdered by an angry vigilante mob of white racists in Duluth, Minnesota.

A couple of days ago, ex-Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and Louisiana Republican Party member David Duke announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, crediting the political statements and announced agenda of Donald Trump and, presumably, the platform of the Republican Party. Months earlier, after Duke publicly endorsed Trump for President, Trump unconvincingly claimed that he didn’t know anything about Duke.

Post card photo of the lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie in  Duluth, Minnesota, June 15. 1920.

Post card photo of the lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie in Duluth, Minnesota, June 15. 1920.

Because a multitude of unbiased observers have documented what is obvious to many others (that white racism is alive and well in America), I submit extended excerpts of two articles that will give readers a historical perspectives on the “black lives don’t matter” reality of our not-too-distant racist past.

A Mob Lynches Three Black Men, by Chriss Julin and Stephanis Hemphill, June 2001:

On a June night in 1920, hundreds of angry men and thousands of curious onlookers surrounded the downtown headquarters of the Duluth police department. The crowd might have reached 10,000. They wanted the handful of police officers inside to turn over their prisoners – a group of young, black circus workers.

The police had arrested the men earlier that day. They accused some of the out-of-towners of raping a young, white woman at the circus grounds. Later investigations cast serious doubt on the rape charges, but the howling mob outside the police station had no doubts.

“This is where the mob broke in,” says Michael Fedo, who wrote a book about the 1920 lynchings. “I think this was a Sears store or a hardware store. The mob came into this store – which is now the casino – and the proprietor gave them rope for the hangings and said it was on the house.”

Standing in the heart of downtown Duluth, Fedo points across Superior St. to a handsome, three-story brownstone building full of offices. The word “POLICE” is still carved in the stone over the door.

Fedo says when the mob closed in on the police station, the city’s public safety commissioner ordered the 12 officers inside to holster their guns. He didn’t want anyone in the crowd to get hurt. A few officers came out onto the street, and tried to fight the mob back with their bare hands and a fire hose. But the crowd surged past them into the jail, with a roar that could be heard a mile away.

“Most of the cells were on the second floor, so they went in and broke into several of the cells.”

While members of the mob sawed and smashed on the bars, some of the men inside the cells pleaded their innocence. Others prayed.

“The people in the mob believed that six had attacked the girl, so they tried to get six – they only managed to get into three of the cells. There were several people in the cells with the prisoners, asking questions, trying to find out in their minds who the six were among the more than a dozen who were in the cells,” says Fedo.

“The people who were outside were saying, ‘Just give us somebody,’ and that first somebody was a young man named Isaac McGhie, who was just thrown from the cell to the hands of the mob who took him out front, brought him up the hill here one block, where he was the first one hanged,” Fedo recalls.

Isaac McGhie was beaten and bloody when he got to this corner, right next to the Duluth Shrine Temple, which is still here.

“This is where they were brought to be hanged. I don’t know why they would have been brought up the hill instead of down the hill. But it may have been because there was a young man perched on top of this pole, and they just assumed, ‘He’s already there, we’ll take them up there, we’ll have this kid tie a knot on the lamppost above the street, and take care of business that way,'” says Fedo.

A priest named William Powers pushed his way to the front of the crowd, and climbed part way up the lamppost. The priest managed to quiet the crowd for a few moments. He begged them to stop. But members of the mob pulled Rev. Powers down, and hoisted Isaac McGhie up.

Then the mob dragged Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton out of the jail, and up the hill to the street light. When all three men were hanging, battered and dead, the crowd parted so a photographer could capture the scene.

“This was a significantly posed photo,” says Fedo. “It took a couple of automobiles with lights to illuminate the scene so the photographer could get his picture taken.”

In the center of the crisp, black and white photo, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie hang from the street light, stripped to the waist, their necks impossibly stretched and twisted. Elias Clayton lies beneath their feet, tossed onto the sidewalk, to make it easier to frame the picture. Dozens of men lean into the picture facing the camera.

“What this looks like is the kind of photo you would see at a hunting lodge, where the guys had been out shooting bear, and they came back and they said, ‘We got three.’ You can see people on tip-toe. They’ve crowded into this shot. These are not people who are ashamed to be seen here. This is, ‘I want to be in this picture.'”

“The one that quite stood out is the fellow who’s to the left of the bodies who is beaming. He looks like he’s very proud of what has transpired, and that is the face that really stands out to me,” says Fedo.

Someone made postcards out of the photo, and sold them as souvenirs. Postcards of lynchings were fairly common. A recent book, Without Sanctuary, is a collection of photos and postcards from nearly 100 lynchings. It includes the picture from Duluth.

A lynching in northern Minnesota was big news. It made headlines across the country. It stayed in the local news for months during the criminal trials that followed. Juries in Duluth convicted three men of rioting. The longest sentence served was two years. No one was convicted of murder. But one of the black men who survived the attack on the jail was convicted of rape, in spite of compelling evidence he was innocent. He served four years in prison.

And then, the story of the lynching disappeared from the news.


The Face of Emmett Till By “Big Tex” – May 14, 2009:

On September 6, 1955, a little over a week after he was kidnapped, beaten, and murdered (July 25, 1955) for whistling at a white woman, Emmett Till was laid to rest at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

Funeral photo of Emmett Till:

Funeral photo of Emmett Till:

By the time his journey to the grave had ended, Till’s body had been seen by as many as 50,000 people who personally came to view his body at a Chicago funeral home. But before long, it would be seen by millions more, as photographs of his badly disfigured corpse circulated around the country, ultimately appearing on the cover of Jet magazine.

The image of a 14-year-old boy with his eye gouged out and his head caved in was a shock to the senses of all who saw it; but it was also a rallying point for a generation of young African-Americans, and many whites as well, who saw in his mutilated face the suffering of a people, and who were inspired to end that suffering by organizing, by marching, and by voting.

The face of Emmett Till might not have inspired so many if it were not for the grim determination of his mother, Mamie Till Bradley. The funeral home where Till’s body was displayed resisted allowing the casket to be opened, but Mrs. Bradley insisted, threatening to open the casket herself if need be. She wanted to see her son one last time before he left this world, but she wanted others to see him too. And so, because of her perseverance, the casket of Emmett Till was opened, his body was photographed for posterity, and the world saw what they did to Mrs. Bradley’s baby.

For African-Americans in the South, the horrors reflected in the face of Emmett Till were a daily fact of life. But for African-Americans who had moved away from the South and its Jim Crow laws to places like Chicago, the face of Emmett Till was a reminder that the brutality of racism could not be left behind so easily.

As for white Americans, they were forced to take a serious look at the human toll of the injustice that they had participated in, or tolerated, or tried to ignore. Though many whites, particularly in the South, were unmoved by what they saw (or at least pretended to be), many more were deeply affected by it.

Despite the publicity and anger generated by the photographs of Emmett Till, the people who murdered him were never brought to justice. A little over two weeks after Till was laid to rest, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted the only two men ever formally charged with his murder: Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman who Till whistled at, and Bryant’s half-brother, J.W. Milam. Both men would later admit to murdering Till, safe from prosecution due to double jeopardy protection. They’re dead now, and while as many as 12 other people may have participated in the crime, no one else has been charged in connection with Till’s murder.

But though Emmett Till and his family never received justice from the state of Mississippi, the wave of activism spawned by those who were inspired by the sight of his mutilated body brought justice of a different sort.

Emmett Till and his mother.

Emmett Till and his mother.

The face of Emmett Till would inspire Rosa Parks not to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama later that year. It would inspire nine African-American schoolchildren to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957. It would inspire sit-ins in Greensboro in 1960, and Freedom Riders in 1961. It would inspire voter registration drives, and a letter from a Birmingham jail cell. It would inspire over 300,000 people to march on Washington, and millions to dream of a day when people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It would inspire the Freedom Summer of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

And more than 50 years after the death of Emmett Till, in a country where racism still endures but without the power that it once had, it would inspire millions of voters, black and white, to reject the prejudices and fears of the past, and elect the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya to be the 44th President of the United States.

Today, as we consider the decision of that same President to block the release of hundreds of photographs showing the torture and abuse of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq, I hope that those of us who are defending his decision will consider the example of Emmett Till, and of how seeing with open eyes the horrors that he endured brought about change in the hearts and minds of so many.

Bush, Cheney, and their subordinates may have given the order to torture detainees, but it was the apathy, fear, and ignorance of millions of Americans that laid the groundwork for these abuses to take place.

We as a nation need to be confronted with our failures and to take ownership of them, so we can set a positive example for young Americans to prevent such abuses from happening in the future. And we need to show those outside America that we can and will live up to our democratic values, so that we’ll be taken seriously when we attempt to share those values with the rest of the world. This isn’t about the next election–it’s about the next generation, and about what kind of America they will build on the ashes of what we allowed to be ruined.

The Death Of Emmett Till — by Bob Dylan

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago

When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat There were screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly die And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low! This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live

Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, Minnesota. He writes a weekly column for the Reader, Duluth’s alternative newsweekly magazine. Many of his columns are archived at http://duluthreader.com/articles/categories/200_Duty_to_Warn,


9 comments for “When Black Lives Surely Didn’t Matter

  1. Vincent Castigliola
    July 30, 2016 at 10:32

    As noted by a reader, the issue of race is worthy of serious consideration and I appreciate his thoughts.

    Is it worthwhile to stop and consider the question, what is racism?
    One definition courtesy of the Internet is:
    Full Definition of racism. 1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination.

    A similar search for the suffix ism revealed: a belief, attitude, style, etc., that is referred to by a word that ends in the suffix -ism. Source: Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary

    Anthony DeMello said this about beliefs:
    The devil once went for a walk with a friend. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick up something from the ground.

    “What did that man find?” asked the friend.

    “A piece of truth,” said the devil.

    “Doesn’t that disturb you?” asked the friend.

    “No,” said the devil, “I shall let him make a belief out of it.” “The Song of the Bird”

    To my observation all families are scared for the safety of their children. All people have been victims of horrible attacks. Men are predominantly assigned the roles of scapegoat and bad guy in our media.

    I’ve seen many people, irrespective of race, not arrested much less prosecuted for crimes they committed. I would add that arrest and prosecution could be a good thing. I am personally aware of the following example: An early user of crystal meth is arrested for drug possession, and as a first offender, is assigned to drug court where his sentence is suspended pending participation in rehabilitation and monitoring. I certainly have concerns over the negative effect of drug criminalization on individual liberty, but have also observed the negative effect of crystal meth on individual users. In addition, getting away with criminal activity can be more curse than a blessing. To my observation, benefits of our drug court system are applied without any racial bias.

    I am more pleased than upset to hear the story of a person who succeeded in life despite the lack of a high school diploma and the commission of a crime while in high school. My good feeling about that outcome is colorblind.

    Is there a problem with saying “all” rather than “white” people need to start to take responsibility for themselves?

    Having lived in the “deep South” for most all of my 60+ years I personally observed enforced segregation. There is no question that such legal policy was evil, hurtful and demeaning. Fortunately enforced segregation it has not existed where I live for over 50 years. Unfortunately it has been replaced by reverse discrimination in the form of affirmative action, likewise demeaning to its beneficiaries.

    Considering the above noted definitions, I suggest that “racism” is all too often mis-applied, and find it difficult to think of anyone I know who subscribes to the concept of racism as defined. We all learn from our experiences and develop certain biases. Rather than overuse in-applicable descriptors, perhaps personal awareness would better suit us.

    I certainly agree with you regarding the importance of cultivating thoughtfulness and compassion and suggest we add the additional goal of fostering an appreciation of personal responsibility.

    Should we not strive to identify and reduce the incidence of all bad behavior and promote genuine accomplishment and success for all our neighbors? I suggest that obsessing over racial components is counterproductive to those important goals.


  2. a reader
    July 30, 2016 at 07:49

    Racism is not just something that happened to someone’s ancestors. It is an ongoing trauma to people in a country overrun with violent, juvenile attitudes and childishly emotional excuses for these attitudes. Black families are still rightfully scared for the safety of their kids. Black people are the victims of horrible attacks, both verbal and physical on a daily basis. They watch their own potential limited not because of their merits, or lack thereof, but because of public stereotyping and assumptions. Black men have been assigned the role of scapegoat and bad guy by both Hollywood and most police departments in this country. Authorities have an expectation that black youth must be totally invisible and never do anything wrong. Meanwhile white kids I grew up with smoked crack, meth, did heroin, and all sorts of destructive drugs. Did any of them serve a prison sentence? One kid at my school was discovered with a vast storehouse of LSD. He went to court and his sentence was dismissed. He now has a nice job working for a prestigious university even though he has no degree and was a HS dropout. But they never bothered to look into his background. Would they have failed to do a background check if he was a black man? White people need to start to take responsibility for themselves. We have demonstrated over and over that we find it more comfortable to both lie to ourselves and let people in power lie to us. We ought to cultivate admirable traits like thoughtfulness and compassion – and think of what it is like in someone else’s shoes.

  3. Vincent Castigliola
    July 28, 2016 at 23:48

    The murders which took place over 60 years ago were and are horrific. I fail to find logic in the editor’s efforts to attack the “all lives matter” movement through graphic reference to those awful events. Likewise, I find curious, the author’s attempts to somehow link David Duke and Donald Trump to those murders. David Duke was a college student at the time he was a member the KKK. President Harry Truman, Senator Robert Byrd, and Justice Hugo Black were Klan members at a much more mature age. I cannot find where Duke ever promoted violence much less murdered anyone. Truman’s actions in ordering the incineration of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki might be worthy of consideration in an analysis of which lives matter. I might prefer a president Trump to be closer to a Duke than a Truman.

    A great man urged that we judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Would that man now encourage the concept that “black lives matter” or that “all lives matter”. To single out the value of lives of a particular race over all lives strikes me as racist, and more in keeping with Klan than King. To misuse tragic events for political purpose seems questionable..

    Is this essay and commentary closer to the goal of independent investigative journalism or promoting political agenda?

    Peace be with us,

  4. Dianne Leonard
    July 28, 2016 at 14:32

    We need to see these pictures, like the one of Emmett Till, and we need to see the movies like the one I saw at age 11 which detailed the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps. Children should see these as soon as they can understand the concept of inhumanity and prejudice. Otherwise we risk exactly what is going on now–the increase in racism, homophobia, and hatred.

  5. J'hon Doe II
    July 28, 2016 at 12:09

    Herman — “There are far too few stories of how racial, religious and ethnic bigotry have been overcome and can be overcome with a little help from the opinion makers and politicians in this country and around the world.”

    Lee Atwater’s 1981 Interview comment on the so-called Southern Strategy (1m. 40sec.)


    (a bit more comprehensive than the soundbite))

  6. Herman
    July 26, 2016 at 13:54

    It happened. What is said about the past is mostly true. But why was one of our presidential candidates booed off the stage when he retorted all lives matter. Only people fixed on victimization of their ancestors, not them, would feel anyone impinging on their victim space is the enemy.

    The idea that you or anyone is owed something because of what happened to your ancestors is a dangerous brew. It is used by the Zionists to justify their treatment of the Palestinians. It is used by children to justify the destruction of their own neighborhoods. It is used Shiites and Sunnis, Muslims and Christians and it always tries to justify violence. You did it to us so we will do it to you.

    There are far too few stories of how racial, religious and ethnic bigotry have been overcome and can be overcome with a little help from the opinion makers and politicians in this country and around the world.

    • J'hon Doe II
      July 27, 2016 at 19:34

      The idea that you or anyone is owed something because of what happened to your ancestors is a dangerous brew

      Federal “Blue Lives Matter” Legislation Picks Up Steam, Advances Myth That Cops Are Under Threat
      Monday, 25 July 2016 00:00
      By Kenneth Lipp,

      If Donald Trump’s “Law and Order” convention is any indication, Republicans in Congress could soon try to amend federal law to equate violence against police officers to assaults fueled by bigotry.

      The Blue Lives Matter Act of 2016, which was introduced to the House in April, gained two co-sponsors in the two weeks prior to the Republican Convention. The bill would amend Chapter 13 of Title 10 of the US Code to “make an attack on a police officer a hate crime.”

      Trump’s convention focused heavily on the idea that crime is out of control, in part, because police are on the receiving end of unfair criticism.

      “I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police,” Trump said during his speech on Thursday. “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country.”


      • J'hon Doe II
        July 27, 2016 at 19:43

        Herman — “The idea that you or anyone is owed something because of what happened to your ancestors is a dangerous brew”
        ( ancestors??? )
        Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote
        From the crime bill to welfare reform, policies Bill Clinton enacted—and Hillary Clinton supported—decimated black America.

        By Michelle Alexander
        FEBRUARY 10, 2016


  7. Zachary Smith
    July 26, 2016 at 12:14

    Friends and family periodically nag at me to watch “12 Years A Slave”. It’s something I’ve never done, and most likely I never will. That’s because I know what I’m going to see happened tens of thousands of times over, and the movie likely understates the horror.

    That’s why I gave Mr. Kohl’s essay the very briefest of glances. For a hundred years the white terrorism in both the north and the south amounted to what some have called a “negro holocaust”. The legacy from that reign of terror endures to this very day, and white juries almost always refuse to convict modern-day terrorists who are equipped with their military weapons, badges, and uniforms. Go read a current essay here titled “Robot-Delivered Death in Dallas” to get a feel for the modern-day defenders of White Supremacy.

    So though I commend Mr. Kohl’s efforts, I personally can’t handle another view of the atrocities. I’ve noticed I’m avoiding the pro-Palestinian sites for the same reason. The Israel settler goons are running amok, and when I’m completely helpless to do anything there comes a point I just can’t read about them any more.

    About all I can to is to hit as hard as I can at the smooth-talking Zionist Supremacists as well as the clueless Southern Heritage types when they crawl out from under their rocks.

Comments are closed.