Tuesday, February 3, 2015

When thinking about the murder of Emmet Till, consider another murder too

Sex and pop: The forgotten 1909 hit that introduced adultery to American popular music tells the story of "I love my wife, but oh you kid!" It includes this:
The Oct. 28, 1909, edition of the New York Times noted a bizarre ruling by a court in Pittsburgh: “Any man who shouts ‘Oh, you kid!’ at a woman on the street, even though she should be his own wife, should be whipped. The Magistrate said he would not fine any man who administered the whipping.” An editorial writer in Arizona went further: “The man who without cause or reason, says ‘I 
love my wife, but oh you kid!’ would not wear
 his button long, for the fool killer would start 
for him and mercifully end his existence.” That scenario was not, it turned out, farfetched. In October 1910, in Atlanta, a man named N.H. Bassett was shot by George Lambert, a railway company executive, after Bassett approached Lambert’s wife on the street crying, “Oh, you kid!” “It is believed Bassett will die,” wire services blithely reported. “Lambert surrendered, but was at
 once released.”
That reminded me of the murder of Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old who was brutally murdered in 1955 for flirting with a white man's wife. What exactly happened may never be known—he may have been misunderstood by the wife, or, as she testified at the trial, he may've been more forward than the man who called, "Oh, you kid!"

I had always assumed racism was the only factor in the killing of Emmett Till until I read about the "Oh, you kid!" murder. Race was irrelevant in the death of N.H. Bassett, and Bassett's murderer, like Emmett Till's, was freed by people who believed husbands could kill to defend their wives' honor.

Because the internet is awful at nuance: This does not mean I think race was irrelevant in the death of Emmett Till. It was the 1950s in the American South. The rule of Jim Crow was coming to an end. Race had to be relevant.

But any student of history knows that few things have a single cause, and that a cause which is remembered may not be the greatest.