Emmett Till, Joseph Smith, Matthew Shepard and the Results of Prejudice

A week or so ago,  an insightful person wrote a post to me telling how prejudice affects the way a person lives out their daily lives.  Instead of walking in confidence, people who are discriminated against often live in fear of being harassed.  After reading her comment, I tried to think of examples of where prejudice eventually leads.  In societies that embrace a prejudiced view of a group of people, they often take harsh measures to keep a member of a marginalized group in their place.  In extreme cases, this may even result in lynchings and murder.  The deaths of Emmett Till, Joseph Smith and Matthew Shepard are examples of where prejudice eventually leads.

Emmet Till was a fourteen year old boy in August 1955.  He was raised in Chicago, a city with over five hundred thousand African Americans and opportunities for blacks were greater than for the southern states where Till’s great uncle Mose Wright lived.  The south had, since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1800s, been ruled by Jim Crow laws that segregated whites from blacks.  It was a deeply racist society, and African Americans lived with discrimination, inferior services, and limited economic opportunities.  They were also circumscribed in the social realm as well, as racial prejudices put them in a lower social footing than whites.   Lynchings were common in that area as a way of keeping blacks in fear of challenging the social norms of the time. Though Chicago was not free of racism, it was a far more open culture for African Americans like Emmett Till to live in, with jobs, education opportunities and entertainment that was not open to African Americans in the south.

When Emmett Til visited his great uncle Mose Wright, he did not know of the strict racial rules that governed all of southern life.  So Till broke one of the South’s strongest taboos:  a black male flirting with a white woman.   One morning, Emmett’s cousins dared Emmett to ask a white woman in Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippe.  So he accepted the dare and asked the woman out on a date.  As he and his cousins ran out of the market, he yelled at her “Bye, baby,” and gave her a two-note wolf whistle.  Three days later, Roy Bryant, the woman’s husband, and another white man took Emmett Till from his grand uncle’s home in the middle of the night.  Chris Crowe, the author of Getting Away With Murder:  the True Story of the Emmett Till Case, wrote what happened to Emmett:

“Willie Reed, the son of a sharecropper, testified in court that he saw Emmett sitting in the back of a pickup truck carrying two other Blacks and four white men, one of whom Reed identified as J.W. Milam.  Reed said that later that morning he heard sounds of a beating and cries of “Mama, Lord have mercy.  Lord have mercy!”  coming from inside the shed, and saw Milam, carrying a pistol, leave the shed to draw water from a well.  Three other white men were with him.

After the cries stopped, Reed watched as a truck backed up to the shed and three Black men helped the white men lead something wrapped in a tarp into the truck.  Later that day he saw the Black workers hosing blood out of the pickup’s bed.

It’s not known if Emmett was dead or alive when they left the shed.  According to Bryant and Milam, after beating Emmett, they took him to the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to strip.  Milam claimed that even after the beatings, Emmett showed no remorse for what he had done at Bryant’s Market.  That’s when Milam ‘decided it was time a few people got put on notice,’ and he made up his mind to kill Emmett, ‘just so everybody could know how me and my folks stand.’  When their evil deed was finished, Bryant, Milam, and whoever else was involved returned to the plantation, burned Emmett’s clothes and shoes, and then went home to bed.”

On August 31, Emmett Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River.   It was horribly disfigured, the result, as one deputy said, of “torture, horrible beating.”  The head had been severely beaten, with one side of the forehead crushed.  An eye had been gouged out.  The skull had a bullet hole just above the right ear.  The neck had been ripped raw by barbed wire wrapped around it.  The body was so disfigured that the only way that Mose Wright could identify it to the police was a ring that was on the corpses finger that belonged to Till’s father.  Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett’s mother, insisted on an open casket viewing to show the world what racists did to her son.

Mormons have faced persecution throughout their history as well.  From beginning they were subject to harassment, violence, intimidation and group lynchings.   Their leaders were often tarred and feathered by hostile crowds, as was the case of Mormon Bishop Edward Partridge in Independence, Missouri on July 20, 1833.  In Missouri on October 30, 1838, a militia of 240 men attacked a group of 30 Mormon families, killing seventeen and injuring twelve.  Near Nauvoo, Illinois in September 10, 1845, a Mormon settlement is burned to the ground by marauding horsemen.  In Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton’s book The Mormon Experience, it gives a quote by Liburn W. Boggs, the governor of Missouri in 1838, that conveys they feeling of hatred that many felt towards Mormons:  “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary, for the public peace.”  Even today, Mormons face vandalism of their church property and violence in Latin American countries.  According to Wikipedia, The MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base lists 149 individual attacks that have been carried out against Mormon targets in Latin America since 1983.

One of the most famous victims of anti-Mormon violence was the death of Joseph Smith, the prophet of the religion.  Anti-Mormon feelings were running high in Illinois and a controversy developed over the publication of a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor.  The Expositor made inflammatory accusations against Mormon leaders , which led Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, who were the mayor and vice mayor, to shut down the paper to keep the peace.  Anti-Mormon groups charged the Smiths with suppressing freedom of the press, and had them jailed in Carthage, Illinois.   According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Joseph_Smith,_Jr.), a mob of about 200 armed men, their faces painted black,tormed the jail in the late afternoon of June 27, 1844.  Wikipedia describes the death of Joseph Smith as follows:

“The mob fired shots through the door and attempted to push the door open to fire into the room. Hyrum Smith was shot in the face, just to the left of his nose. He cried out, “I am a dead man!” and collapsed. His body received five additional gunshot wounds.

“…Smith, Taylor, and Richards attempted to defend themselves. Taylor and Richards attempted to use walking sticks in order to deflect the guns as they were thrust inside the cell, from behind the door. Smith used a small pepper box pistol that Cyrus Wheelock had given him when Wheelock had visited the jail earlier that day. Three of the six barrels misfired…

Joseph Smith made his way towards the window. As he prepared to jump down, Richards reported that he was shot twice in the back and a third bullet, fired from a musket on the ground outside, hit him in the chest.

Taylor and Richards’ accounts both report that as Smith fell from the window, he called out “Oh Lord, my God!”. Some have alleged that the context of this statement was an attempt by Joseph Smith to use a Masonic distress signal.

There are varying accounts of what happened next. Taylor and Richards’ accounts state that Smith was dead when he landed after his fall. One eyewitness, William Daniels, wrote in his 1845 account that Smith was alive when mob members propped his body against a nearby well, assembled a makeshift firing squad, and shot him before fleeing. Daniels’ account also states that one man tried to decapitate Smith for a bounty, but was prevented by divine intervention. There were additional reports that thunder and lightning frightened the mob off. Mob members fled, shouting, “The Mormons are coming,” although there was no such force nearby.”

Gay people also have faced much harassment and discrimination.  This includes assault, rape, torture and murder.  Various religious groups have condemened homosexual behavior as being immoral, and different cultures look down upon LGBT people.  Christian Europe and Muslim countries had in the past enacted codes that punished homosexual behavior with mutilation, ostracism and death.  According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_against_LGBT_people):

“In the United States, the FBI reported that 15.6% of hate crimes reported to police in 2004 were founded on perceived sexual orientation. 61% of these attacks were against gay men, 14% against lesbians, 2% against heterosexuals and 1% against bisexuals, while attacks against GLBT people at large made up 20%.  Violence based on perceived gender identity was not recorded in the report.

In the United States, the FBI reported that for 2006, hate crimes against gays increased to 16%, from 14% in 2005, as percentages of total documented hate crimes across the US. The 2006 annual report, released on November 18, 2007, also said that hate crimes based on sexual orientation are the third most common type, behind race and religion.”

One of the worst instances of violence occurred on October 7, 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming.  Matthew Shepard was a gay student attending the University of Wyoming.  In a bar, he met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.  After confiding to them that Matthew was gay, the two men deceived Shepard to leave the bar with them.  McKinney and Russell drove him to a secluded area, where they began to beat Shepard with a pistol.  They then proceeded to tie him to a buck fence, torture and beat him some more, then robbed him of his credit card, wallet, and his shoes.  The two men left Shepard tied to the fence, and they had planned to go to Shepard’s house to burglarize his home.  A boy found Aaron Shepard 18 hours later.  Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Shepard)  wrote about Shepard’s condition:

“Shepard suffered a fracture from the back of his head to the front of his right ear. He had severe brain stem damage, which affected his body’s ability to regulate heart rate, body tempature and other vital signs. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard never regained consciousness and remained on full life support. As he lay in intensive care, candlelight vigils were held by the people of Laramie.

He was pronounced dead at 12:53 A.M. on October 12, 1998 at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.”

In the aftermath of the beatings, Moises Kaufman and member of the Tectonic Theater project went to Laramie and conducted over 200 interviews with the townspeople.  These interviews were the basis of their play, The Laramie Project, which chronicles the opinions and insights of 60 people of Laramie.  They showed a community of complex human beings trying hard to deal with the atrocity that took place in their midst.  Jeffrie Lockwood said something that most of the townspeople probably hoped about the identity of the killers:  “My secret hope was that they were from somewhere else, that then of course you can create that distance:  We don’t grow children like that here.   Well, it’s pretty clear that we do grow children like that here…”

All of us as human beings have certain prejudices that we try to overcome.   Without any restraints, prejudice of any sort can lead to the type of violence that Matthew Till, Joseph Smith and Matthew Shepard suffered through.   Even if a person does not experience outright violence, the threat of violence and the oppressive atmosphere of prejudice often makes a discriminated group live in fear.   Lola Wheeler wrote a comment (http://www.everydaycitizen.com/2008/11/mormons_catholics_and_evangeli.html) about the fear that gays go through:

“Gay bashing often includes violence and terrorism. For many gays, a loud bump in the night is more startling than it may be for straight people like you and me. Many (if not most) gay people actually live in fear of real danger. They fear for their jobs, their health, the security of their possessions, the safety of their loved ones and – even – they fear for their lives. “

Lola is right about the quiet violence that prejudice inflicts upon discriminated people.  Hitler was able to exploit the antisemitism that already existed in Germany and push those feelings to horrific extremes.   Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org),  Soulforce (http://www.soulforce.org/article/7), Call To Action (http://www.cta-usa.org/), and the National Council of La Raza (http://www.nclr.org/) are fighting prejudice in society and in churches. 

Though these were horrific deaths, they helped galvanize communities and inspired people into activism.  The death of Emmett Till was considered by many people to be one of the galvanizing events that started the modern African American Civil Rights movement.  The death of Matthew Shepard had a similar effect upon the LGBT community.  To know about the ways in which their memories help fight prejudice, you can go to the Emmett Till Foundation (http://www.emmetttillmurder.com/Foundation.htm), the Matthew Shepard Foundation (http://www.matthewshepard.org/site/PageServer), and Equality Utah (http://www.equalityutah.org/).

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Since my time in college, my goal has been to be a successful children’s book illustrator. I’ve illustrated 3 books: Two Moms the Zark and Me by Johnny Valentine in 1993; Night Travelers by Sue Hill in 1994; and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book Volume 2 for Cherubic Press in 1998. I’ve painted murals for Lester Shields Elementary School in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library, and Grace Community Church in Los Altos. I’ve had a few illustrations published in South Bay Accent Magazine and I will have an illustration published in the January/February issue of Tikkun magazine.
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5 Responses to Emmett Till, Joseph Smith, Matthew Shepard and the Results of Prejudice

  1. Pingback: » Emmett Till, Joseph Smith, Matthew Shepard and the Results of … White House On Best Political Blogs: News And Info On White House

  2. ruby says:

    do you have a website for joseph smith?

    i agree that the death of matthew shepard is completely horrific and just plain wrong also evil.

    however, his death does not make homosexuality a healthy lifestyle. i don’t think that there should be prejudice against homosexuals, but i also don’t think there lifestyles should be lauded as healthy and normal.

    this article discusses the controversy around the APA dropping homosexuality from its list of disorders. ultimately, it was a political decision, not a medical decision.

    http://beetlebabee.wordpress.com/2008/12/03/gay-and-born-that-way-since-1973/

  3. angelolopez says:

    Thank you Ruby for your comment. Here are two sites for Joseph Smith http://www.josephsmith.net/josephsmith/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=041579179acbff00VgnVCM1000001f5e340aRCRD and http://www.josephsmith.com/. I guess you could also look at the Mormon website http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=e419fb40e21cef00VgnVCM1000001f5e340aRCRD.

    We don’t agree on homosexuality, but I’m glad we agree that homophobia is wrong. Since a lot of the hatred of gays and lesbians is a direct result of religion, I think people within the church have a direct responsibility to stop that type of hate. When I used to attend an Evangelical church, I witnessed two types of Christians: those who thought homosexuality was a sin and just hated gays and lesbians; and those who thought homosexuality was a sin yet had friends and family members who were gay and lesbian and sincerely tried to balance loving them while maintaining their principles. I think those who hold that homosexuality is a sin have a strong responsibility to insure that their belief doesn’t get used to add to the type of homophobia and hatred that leads to the suffering that Matthew Shepard went through.

  4. kim says:

    Hey. I meant to submit a comment to a previous site I was on, but I couldn’t find it again. . .
    I am kind of replying to those who had left comments there, so I apologize. But there were a couple of comments left on the previous site that said something to the effect of “Oh, it’s too bad that the Mormons didn’t learn from their own history not to discriminate against gays. . . ”
    I guess I would just like to say, at least concerning gays. . . the LDS people have never embraced violence toward any group who they had theological reasons for disapproving of their behavior.
    There is nowhere within the LDS church where its adherents are taught to “hate” gays. They just do not believe that it is normal or good to act on gay tendencies. And they believe that to say that it is okay for homosexuals to be married, would be wrong.
    And, LDS people are still being persecuted; of late, it has been because of their willingness to stand up against gay “marriage”. If we were to look at who has really been persecuted in California, I would definitely say it has been the LDS people (with their churches being vandalized, etc.).

    I think that it is terrible, absolutely TERRIBLE about that poor young man in Laramie, Wyoming who was beaten so badly and hurt so badly he died just a few days later. That is so horrible. And while someone might not feel that acting on gay tendencies is right, that (as I am sure would be seconded by the general authorities of the LDS church) absolutely does not mean that there is any excuse for abuse or disrespect–especially such abuse as what happened to poor Matthew Shepard. That was just absolutely disgraceful. Some might say that just to disagree with the gay lifestyle is a form of disrespecting, but I disagree. I think that people can feel that what someone is doing is morally wrong, but still show a great deal of love and consideration toward that person.

    • angelolopez says:

      You express very good sentiments, Kim, but I’m afraid that not all Mormons, or Christians in general, share your views. I attended an evangelical church for 8 years and witnessed gay christians get harassed or ostracized or get dirty looks from people who didn’t approve. In those churches, there were individual Christians who treated their gay and lesbian friends with respect, but the larger group were not so loving and kind.

      That’s one of the things that turned me off to Evangelical Christianity, and I have a feeling it’s probably the same way with the Mormon church too. There may be individual Mormons who treat their gay and lesbian friends and family with love and respect, but I’m guessing the larger group are probably as disapproving as the larger group in the Evangelical church I attended. That’s just a guess on my part.

      There’s a group called Affirmation that is for gay and lesbian Mormons. You could find them here http://www.affirmation.org/. In reading their website, I found that gay Mormons’ experiences were similar to the gay Evangelical friends I’ve talked to. So when I read about how the Mormon church treat gays with love and respect even if they don’t agree with homosexuality, I think that’s probably true with some individual Mormons but I have my doubts with the larger group.

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