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The untimely death of Emmett Louis Till: The power of graphic pictures

Pictures have a power that words simply cannot match. That became evident in the tragic death of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old Chicago teen who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955. Till was in the Mississippi town of Money visiting his uncle. Out with friends one afternoon, he did the same dumb thing many teenage boys will do; he whistled at a pretty girl. The problem was Till was black, and the woman he whistled at, Carolyn Bryant, was white. Foolish for the fifties While in any time period it’s crude to wolf whistle when an attractive woman goes by, in 1955 it was just plain crazy for a young black teen to whistle at a pretty white woman. No one seems quite sure why Till did it. Mississippi was a difficult place to be black, and Carolyn Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law were livid when they heard what Till had done. According to a cousin, "They said they were just going to whip him." Sadly, Till soon encountered the vicious realities of racism in 1955. He was kidnapped from his bed at his uncle’s house on August 28, beaten, and shot in the head. His body was then tied to a heavy metal fan with barbed wire and thrown into the nearby Tallahatchie River. Some fishermen found his battered corpse in the river three days later. The husband and brother-in-law were tried for the murder but acquitted. In a 1956 interview with Look magazine, the two admitted to the murders. Though they had confessed, no further legal action was taken against the men since under American law you cannot be tried twice for the same crime. To anyone who knows about the American South in the ‘40s and ‘50s, this story is hardly surprising. It seems that there are many stories of blacks who were lynched, driven out of town, or otherwise put out of the way. The whites accused of the crime, generally speaking, received little or no punishment. The story of Emmett Louis Till is neither unusual nor surprising. Open casket One thing about the story is different. Till’s mother held the teen’s funeral in Chicago, and it was an open casket funeral. No mortician, no funeral director, no matter how skilled, can fully hide the effects of being beaten, shot in the head, and left in the river for days. Reporters were present at the funeral and took pictures. The stomach-churning photos were duly published in Chicago, and picked up by papers around the world. Though anyone living in 1955 who was familiar with the American South would have heard of stories of the brutal murder of blacks, few would have seen the pictures. It is easy to ignore it when someone writes about the suffering of people in a distant county or state. It is much harder to ignore it – to let it just go away – when you see pictures of one of the victims. When you can see the bruises from the beating, the wounds where the bullet would have entered and exited the head, and marks that the barbed wire would have left around Till’s neck, then violence against blacks becomes very, very hard to forget. The start of something big The murder of Emmett Louis Till is credited by many with waking up Americans to the extent of the problem of racism. According to U.S. Assistant Attorney General Alexander Acosta, Till’s death “stands at the crossroads of the American civil rights movement.” On December 1, 1955, only three months after Till’s body was found, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and was thrown off the bus. This triggered the Montgomery bus boycott, and because they couldn’t ignore the problem any longer there were whites willing to support the fight for equal treatment of blacks. When Martin Luther King went from playing a support role in the bus boycott, to leading a nation wide movement for racial equality, there were whites working with blacks to change their nation. The problem could no longer be ignored. The murder of young Emmett Louis Till was not at all unusual for the time. Newspapers had run countless stories with thousands of words detailing the treatment of blacks. The murder of one more teenage black was not at all surprising. What was surprising were the pictures of his battered body. They were gut-wrenching photos that could not be forgotten or ignored. They had an impact that mere words simply could not. Sometime a picture really is worth a thousand words. We haven't shared the graphic pictures of Emmett Till because we understand it is quite possible younger children may be viewing this over their parents' shoulders. Instead we've included a link to one of the photos, as it was placed in the Chicago Defender, here. This article first appeared in the June 2004 edition of Reformed Perspective....


The End was near

They’ve probably been predicting the end of time since the beginning of time. Recently, we’ve had predictions it would end in 2012, due to some Mayan calendar related prophecy. And in 2011, Harold Camping, a prominent, and formerly Reformed, radio host made news predicting the universe’s destruction for October of that year. And, of course, cults all around the world were expecting the end in the year 2000, and countless individuals were predicting Western civilization would grind to a halt as the Y2K computer bug shuts down all the computerized systems we depend on. While computers may be a recent invention, predictions of the end are not. For numerous orthodox and not-so orthodox Christians, predicting the end of time has been a pre-occupation for as long as anyone can remember. The reasoning behind most of the predictions has often been creative, and of the sort of logic that could come up with almost any date. It often goes something like this: the world is going to end in 1998. Why 1998? Well, all you have to do is take the number of God - 3 - multiply it by the number of the beast - 666 - and you get 1998. (Since you’re reading this in 2017, you might’ve noticed a flaw in the reasoning.) Other examples abound. John Gribben authored a book in the 1970s arguing that an alignment of the planets in 1982 would bring on the end as the combined gravity of the planets caused massive earthquakes, tidal waves, and other disasters. Though by 1980, even Gribben had disowned his theory, some religious groups continued preparing for an end that didn’t arrive. Jehovah’s Witnesses Charles Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult, took a unique approach to forecasting the end. He predicted Christ’s return in 1874, but he predicted this after the year had passed. According to him, Christ had returned secretly that year. In the closest thing to success in a doomsday prediction, Russell expected the final battle between God and Satan would take place in 1914. While it wasn’t the final battle, World War I did start that year. In fairness to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, after repeated failed attempts to predict the end of the world, they gave up on that in 1996. Now they focus on being “watchful” rather than failing to predict the end of time. The End through the ages For those trying to anticipate the end, the year 1666 was an obvious year to expect it. After all, the year itself contained the number of the beast. If anyone was expecting judgment that year, it only arrived in London, where The Great Fire burnt much of the English capital to the ground. Some had predicted the end of time to fall in 1657. The very important Council of Nicea was held in 325. Two times the number of the beast - 666 - plus 325 and voila, you’ve got 1657. The Black Plague swept Europe from 1338 to 1349, returning for a second outbreak between 1357 and 1362. This rat-borne disease wiped out from 20 to 30 million people, anywhere from one quarter to one third of Europe’s total population. With this sort of catastrophe sweeping the continent, predictions abounded of the anti-Christ’s imminent arrival. He was expected to come in 1346, 1348, 1375, and 1400. If those dates didn’t produce the expected result, those peering into the future simply tried again and guessed another date. Though they thought they could see Armageddon coming, they miscalculated, repeatedly. One of the predictions that seemed to catch a lot of people’s imaginations was that the end would come in 1260. The monk, Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202), developed an elaborate theory of history to back up his expectation. Based on Biblical genealogies, there are 42 generations from Abraham to Christ. If a generation is 30 years on average, that’s 1260 years. He reasoned that there would also be 42 generations after the birth of Christ, and thus, the world would end in 1260. What made Joachim’s system so much more enticing was that his whole history of time was based on the number 3. The first period, the period of the law or of God the Father, took place until the birth of Christ. The period of Christ would last until 1260, and the third and final period of the Spirit, when the world would be converted, would take place immediately after that. Though Joachim was consulted by popes, and wined and dined by kings and princes, he was still wrong. Time kept marching on. Year 1000 scare The most widely believed date for the end of time was the millennium. No, not the year 2000, but the year 1000. At that point, there was considerable panic that the end was near. In 950, the monk Adso wrote to Gerberga, sister of the Frankish king, Otto I, saying that the anti-Christ would come when the last Frankish king died. This Frankish dynasty ended somewhere between 987 and 991, inspiring fear that the end of time was fast approaching. This fear was reinforced by Adso’s one-way pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The arrival of Halley’s Comet in 989 was seen as a sign of the coming apocalypse. These indicators were backed up by the preaching of Aelfric, the Abbot of Eynsham, who delivered apocalyptic sermons in the 990s, hinting at the end of time in the year 1000. Dooms-dayers are nothing if not flexible. The year 1000 was seen as a reasonable date for the end of time since it came 1000 years after the birth of Christ. When the world failed to end in 1000, the next logical choice was 1033, 1000 years after the death of Christ. In the case of both the year 1000 and the year 1033, society changed in noticeable ways. Peace councils were formed to try to stop the violence and war of the period. In the resulting peace, parishes and villages were organized. Not surprisingly, new prosperity resulted. In preparing for the perceived end, the peasants and aristocrats drew together in a new spirit of cooperation and friendship. As the cynic might expect, when the end did not come, these advances quickly fell apart. Conclusion So what are we supposed to make of all this? Try as we might, we just don’t know the day or hour of the end, not even the angels in heaven know that. Since we’re still here, in time, having to use our talents to God’s glory, that means that we have to trust that God will take care of us. Eventually, those predicting the end are bound to hit the mark. If you make enough predictions one of them eventually has to be right. However, when that last day comes, for us it’s not something to fear or to make us panic. When the Master returns and finds his servants doing what he has asked, He will richly reward them. The end of time is something to be eagerly expected, not eagerly predicted. A version of this article first appeared in the May 1999 issue. For more information on End Times predictions see Richard Abanes’ “End-Time Visions: The Road to Armageddon?” and Bernard McGinn’s “Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages”...


Our heroes have feet of clay

You find them everywhere. They’re the people we look up to. They sing, they dance, they play hockey, they win battles and they found nations. They’re our heroes. You know the people: George Washington, Wayne Gretzky, Winston Churchill, or Ginger Rogers. They’re larger than life figures that do larger than life things flawlessly. We want to be like them. Unless you’re Canadian. When an Internet poll asked Canadians who their heroes were some of the results were predictable, like Terry Fox, but there were also a few less likely individuals. Do n’t misunderstand, these people did some incredible things and were certainly larger than life. However, they were also hopelessly flawed. John A. One man who topped the list was Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A Macdonald. It is to Sir John A. that much of the credit goes for the founding of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. He helped pull together a disparate bunch of English Canadian Reformers and Tories and united them with French Canadian Bleus. Then he got the British to bully Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a grand confederation of colonies that formed the nucleus of the present day Canada. While that’s impressive, Canadians know Sir John A. in a more intimate way than that. You see, as most Canadians are aware, Sir John was bounced from office in 1873 for the Pacific Railway Scandal that involved suggestions of bribes, patronage, and all kinds of corruption. Additionally, the prime minister was a habitual drunkard. It was no secret for he bragged about his drinking, yet Canadians forgave him, returning him and his party to office in 1878. There are other unusual Canadians as well. William Lyon Mackenzie King made the list of heroes for his impressive job of shepherding Canada through the Second World War. If that doesn’t sound impressive, keep in mind that when Prime Minister Borden tried to guide the country during the previous world war, he succeeded in alienating French speaking Quebec, and much of the farming population, as well as accidentally splitting the opposition Liberal party in two. King kept peace and tranquillity, while Borden created a political crisis that threatened to undo Canada. Though a master politician, Canadians were aware of King’s oddities, including consulting with mediums, and talking to his dead dog – stuffed and sitting on the mantle. Rebel Riel Louis Riel was also on the list of heroes. While the man who initiated the only rebellions Canada has ever had may seem an odd choice as a hero, to many Western Canadians Riel is exactly that. With his rebellions at Red River and then in the North West Territories, Riel was probably the first Westerner that ever made “the East” sit up and take notice, and to perpetually alienated Westerners, that makes Riel a hero. However, Riel was a religious fanatic, believing himself a prophet and in communication with God. He had spent time in a mental asylum, and at the time of the 1885 Rebellion may have actually been mentally unbalanced. E is for equal rights...and also eugenics In its heroes, Canada is an equal opportunity employer. One of the most significant women to make the list was Emily Murphy. A successful writer under the pen name Janey Canuck, a Member of the Canadian Parliament, the first female police magistrate in the British Empire, and a participant in the landmark “Persons Case” that gave Canadian women legal status as people, Murphy has had her reputation tarnished in recent years. The United Farmers government of the province of Alberta enacted the Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928 that allowed for the sterilization of the mentally incompetent and others unfit to parent. This version of eugenics, repugnant to most modern Canadians, was strongly backed by the otherwise progressive and reform-minded Murphy. Conclusion Canadians choices for heroes have been odd. The less savory facts behind the lives of most of Canada’s heroes are well known and thoroughly documented, but Canadians picked these people anyway. Someone once told me that you can’t tell an American something bad about their heroes. They don’t want to know about George Washington’s dismal military record as a British lieutenant, and they won’t listen if you tell them that Thomas Jefferson had slaves on his plantation. They certainly don’t want to hear any suggestions that Martin Luther King cheated on his wife, or may have plagiarized his dissertation. But Canadians are different. They know the weaknesses of their heroes and accept them for that. The Bible also contains some unusual heroes, “heroes of faith” like Noah, Abraham, and Rahab. Noah got drunk, Abraham denied that Sarah was actually his wife, and Rahab was a prostitute. These were flawed people, but by God’s strength, they were allowed incredible moments and even years to do deeds that we still remember today. We look back at them, and we look up to them for those deeds. Heroes are not flawless people. They make mistakes, but that doesn’t negate the good that they’ve been allowed to do. That doesn’t mean we can’t look up to them, but it does mean we can’t idolize them. It’s healthy to know that even great women and men have feet of clay, for it reminds us who is ultimately in control.  James Dykstra is both a student and teacher of Canadian history.  ...