Is a modern-day Emmett Till necessary to upend America’s state of denial about gun violence?
For those who go looking, there are detailed verbal accounts of the carnage that happened behind the walls of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Of the gore created by Adam Lanza’s weapons.
Most of us don’t want to know what his Bushmaster’s bullets did to the bodies of those children and teachers. It’s troubling enough to know that it happened; we don’t want the visuals.
Yet the sanitized narrative and images we have of Sandy Hook apparently aren’t enough. After months of anticipation that now, finally, something would be accomplished on gun law reform, the Senate has deep-sixed a package of mild measures in an act of political cowardice.
Which makes me think of Till. His image and memory belong to another social struggle, that of the civil rights movement. But some have argued that Americans just might need to actually see the horribly disfigured body of a child slaughtered by gun violence to sustain the motivation necessary to reform gun laws.
Till died a brutal death in 1955. He was a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who went to visit relatives in Mississippi and came back a mutilated corpse — beaten, shot, an eye gouged out, his body weighted and tossed into a river.
His mother decided that America needed to see the violence that racial hatred of the Jim Crow South both cultivated and excused. She insisted on an open casket. Thousands of mourners viewed her only child’s body, and black publications published graphic photos.
It shocked the nation. As would a similar decision today. We in the media are reluctant to violate norms of decency by showing graphic photos of the murdered or giving all the details we learn, and for good reason. Victims and their families must be respected, not traumatized again.
Nearly 50 years later, Till’s mother was still resolute about the rightness of opening the casket.
I had the privilege of conducting the last interview of Mamie Till Mobley before her unexpected death in 2003. She knew the horrific sight of her son’s body had nudged reluctant Americans to alter their opinions of the civil rights laws that eventually passed Congress.
I’m not urging the bereaved of Newtown or Littleton to make a similar gesture. We should hope it wouldn’t be necessary anyway to give Congress the backbone to stand up to the National Rifle Association. But the civil rights era does offer lessons for today’s struggle to pass sensible gun reform.
Significant social change doesn’t happen easily, quickly or even in reaction to a horrifying national tragedy. A groundswell for change is a cumulative process. It builds, sometimes needing an image, a martyr, as a tipping point.
And we’ve got a long way to go. Most depressing about the Senate’s recent vote was the sheer cynicism on display. As the New York Times reported, “Even a bipartisan amendment to impose stiff penalties on gun traffickers, which was supported by the NRA and expected to be adopted by voice vote, instead was defeated, receiving 58 votes, as the partisan lines hardened.”
Good God, what it will take to move America to enact laws that will affect gun violence?
Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans — including gun owners — support expanding background checks on gun purchasers.
What’s missing is the passion to press the holdouts for change. And polls suggest that Americans’ appetite for action is starting to wane.
We’ll need leaders and symbols, to keep focus. The challenge is not to retreat in a helpless stupor of inaction. Advocates need to reassess and regroup.
MARY SANCHEZ writes for The Kansas City Star. Her column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.