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No, we don't need an 'Emmett Till moment' in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde

Lawmakers and voters don’t need to see the mutilated bodies of children to understand that the U.S. has a gun crisis that only meaningful gun safety legislation can correct.
Image: Uvalde Families Grieve For Loved Ones Killed In School Mass Shooting
Flowers, plush toys and wooden crosses are placed at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 3, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.Alex Wong / Getty Images

I understand the notion of good intentions, but that doesn’t negate whether or not an idea is grotesque.

Much as I understand and relate to the anger and anguish over last week’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, for a number of reasons, I don’t believe we have to look at the mutilated bodies of children to understand that America has a gun crisis that only meaningful gun safety legislation can correct. Yet, that has been the suggestion of some journalists and government officials in recent days in light of the most recent rounds of mass shootings. The theory behind this idea is rooted in the belief that if people and lawmakers could only see what a gun like an AR-15 does to the human body, there could finally be a real shift in how the country tackles gun rights.

It isn’t right for those of power and influence to call on the victims of families of gun violence to give us anything — much less images of their dead loved ones.

Among those calling for this is Temple University’s journalism school dean, David Boardman, who recently made the suggestion via Twitter: “Couldn’t have imagined saying this years ago, but it’s time — with the permission of a surviving parent — to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like. Maybe only then will we find the courage for more than thoughts and prayers.” 

Others include John Woodrow Cox, a Washington Post reporter and the author of “Children Under Fire,” who, in an interview with CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter, argued that many people don’t understand how bullets from high-powered rifles destroy children’s bodies. He said that lawmakers who oppose measures like banning assault weapons should see those images.

“If they’re going to make that choice and say that anybody should have access to those guns, then they should know the cost,” Cox explained on “Reliable Sources” on Sunday. “They should know the price that children pay in graphic form, and if they can live with that, fine.”

And then there is the former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Charles Johnson, who has repeatedly said in interviews and a recent Washington Post op-ed that “we need an Emmett Till moment.” 

Many of us are familiar with the gruesome details of what happened to 14-year-old Till in 1955: After being accused of whistling at a white woman in a grocery store, he was later kidnapped, tortured, lynched and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s brutal murder, one of the most infamous hate crimes of the 20th century, is widely credited with helping kindle the civil rights movement. 

Johnson’s plea for an “Emmett Till moment” refers to the public’s seeing images of Till’s brutalized body lying in his casket. It was a decision that his mother, Mamie Till, insisted on. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said

Although Johnson acknowledged that no parents should necessarily have to share the imagery of their murdered children, he argued in his op-ed that the impact such a decision can have makes it worthy of consideration.

I agree with Johnson that “certain images do more than speak a thousand words” and that “some actually reveal to us what no words can adequately convey,” but his invocation of Till frustrated me. 

No one can deny that the photos of Till’s mutilated body had an impact on the American conscience, but it is hard to discount the reality that the image did more to galvanize the Black community to action than white lawmakers. 

Think about the fact that the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which criminalizes lynching, making it punishable by up to 30 years in prison, was just passed and signed into law in March. It took more than 100 years and 200 times since the first attempt to make lynching a federal hate crime for this to pass.

At the time of its passage, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., a longtime sponsor of the legislation, said, “Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy.” He continued, “Unanimous Senate passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act sends a clear and emphatic message that our nation will no longer ignore this shameful chapter of our history and that the full force of the U.S. federal government will always be brought to bear against those who commit this heinous act.”

Rush is right that it is now clear that our nation will no longer ignore this shameful chapter of our history, but look at how long it took. That doesn’t make Mamie Till’s choice any less significant, but it is dishonest and ahistorical to act as if parents’ potentially causing themselves more trauma after suffering loss will shake the minds of stubborn American voters and lawmakers. (After all, a sign commemorating Till had to be replaced three times because of bullet holes and vandalism.)

This fanciful idea that graphic images can change minds ignores the ugliness of the fact that in the last decade alone, we have seen countless unarmed Black children, women and men be killed by law enforcement, but it hasn’t  stopped our politicians from being cheerleaders for the institution that routinely facilitates state-sanctioned death. 

Even video of George Floyd being slowly murdered in 2020 by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the largest social justice movement in U.S. history that followed couldn’t push Congress to pass police reform legislation. President Joe Biden, who had been criticized for failing to deliver on a campaign pledge to pass legislation, just signed a policing reform executive order in May.

When we consider all of this, there is no guarantee that the images of mutilated murdered children will magically spur a shift in how some in the country approach gun rights. This isn’t to say we should be hopeless that change can’t happen. However, I’m just not convinced families of victims ought to go through any more trauma to mobilize the public. 

Those children should be allowed to rest in peace. It isn’t right for those of power and influence to call on the victims of families of gun violence to give us anything — much less images of their dead loved ones. 

We should find better ways to rally voters and our elected officials to do something.

CLARIFICATION (June 3, 2022, 4:15 p.m.): An earlier version of this article didn’t specify which people John Woodrow Cox thinks should view graphic photos of gun violence victims. He was referring to lawmakers, not members of the general public.