Inside a steamy Delta courtroom in September 1955, a crowd of journalists and local spectators gazed upon twelve empty juror seats in the Tallahatchie County courthouse, eagerly awaiting a verdict in the most highly publicized trial that the picayune little Mississippi town of Sumner had ever seen. Callous laughter rang out from the deliberation room, where twelve White men were deciding the fate of two other White men who were charged with killing Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago whose brutalized body had surfaced in the Tallahatchie River in August, days after one of the men’s wives claimed he made a pass at her in their family grocery store.
After just over an hour, the jurors breezily returned to the courtroom, where they quickly declared that Roy Bryant and JW Milam were not guilty. On the front row of the audience, Carolyn Bryant, the White woman whose claim that Till had “wolf-whistled” at her in the grocery store had sent her husband and brother-in-law on the hunt that ended in the teen boy’s brutal death, passionately kissed her now-free mate, Roy, while Milam shared a kiss with his wife. Then, in front of the throng, the two unjustly exonerated White men lit up a pair of cigars to celebrate the continued triumph of the Southern White man, their superiority re-affirmed in a court of law.
A ‘Very, Very Unfair’ World
For powerful White men throughout US history, committing crimes and evading punishment has often functioned as a rite of passage, whether the wrong was murder, illicit financial activity, or sexual assault. In that world, Donald J Trump, an exceedingly unexceptional White man whose father’s wealth had long shielded him from the truth of his own subpar disposition, rose through the ranks of hapless crooks and dull-witted crime-lords to attain the most powerful office of all, seemingly unencumbered by decades of accusations of illicit financial activities, bungled and legally dubious business ventures, and dozens of accusations of rape and sexual assault.
Trump, now on trial for his well-documented efforts to use the power of his office to extort a vulnerable foreign ally into helping him win his re-election bid, is facing the most significant challenge to his default expectation of unmerited favor that he has seen in his 73-and-a-half years. Despite hundreds of hours of impeachment testimony and thousands of pages of documents, though, many Republican senators are circling the wagons around him, seemingly ready to reaffirm the culture that has long sought to keep White men like him above the reach of the law and out of accountability’s grasp. His trial represents, in some ways, the ultimate test of the durability of American patriarchy and white supremacy.
Since entering presidential politics and the White House, Trump has found himself perpetually shaken off his gold-plated foundations by his own lack of immunity to the kind of scrutiny and criticism that he once gleefully lobbed at the prior African American occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. After the first Republican debate in 2015, Trump immediately complained that Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s question about his past sexist remarks was “unfair” and that she “behaved very nasty” to him. When Trump lost the Iowa primary to Ted Cruz, he whined that he lost because the media had been “unfair.” Then, he whined that it was “very unfair” that there were so many other candidates running, which made it more difficult for him to win enough delegates to secure the nomination.
Trump, as president, has never stopped whining about how unfair the world is to him whenever he runs into the least bit of resistance or criticism.
“There has been no president in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have,” Trump tweeted in September 2019.
“It’s not fair that I’m being Impeached when I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong,” the Republican president wrote last month, even as he continued to refuse to hand over lawfully subpoenaed documents to congressional investigators.
For Trump, “unfair” has rarely if ever meant that he was treated with prejudice, bias, or ill-intent. He uses it, instead, to describe situations in which he is not showered with the privileges, praise, and favor that his upbringing led him to believe he was entitled for his great work of merely continuing to exist. For him, “fair” means, “I get away with it.” For him, “fair” means he can explicitly ask Russia to help him beat a woman who is infinitely more qualified than he is and get rewarded, not with an indictment or a prison sentence, but with the presidency, complete with the kingly freedom from criminal prosecution that the US Justice Department claims it entails.
Trump has often applied this theory to other White men he deems worthy, too (usually, they’re the ones who most dutifully sing his praises), especially as Robert Mueller’s Russia probe began to ensnare a number of his own campaign and White House aides. It was “very sad” what happened to Paul Manafort (when courts convicted him on charges of tax fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and witness tampering), Trump said of his former campaign chairman, adding he had “never seen someone treated so poorly.” Former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (who was indicted for and plead guilty to making false claims to the FBI) was “treated very, very unfairly,” Trump said.
Flynn, of course, once led chants of “Lock her up,” directed at Hillary Clinton, at the 2016 Republican National Convention, despite numerous investigations that found no wrongdoing on the former secretary of state’s part. Clinton’s true crimes, of course, included things like being a woman who did not help sustain White patriarchy’s dominance by staying home and baking cookies; betraying white supremacy by explicitly speaking out against and pushing policies to undo structural racism; and, like a true race traitor, supporting the rights of the nonwhite immigrants and refugees—the very targets of the hatred upon which Trump had built his 2016 campaign.
Above ‘Law and Order’
At the same convention, in true Nixonian fashion, Trump rallied the wretchedness and showered it upon an adoring crowd, declaring that he would “restore law and order to our country” as he cited instances where Black men, apparently angry over police brutality, had attacked police; invoked cases of “inner city homicide”; selectively brought up cases where undocumented immigrants had attacked American citizens; and painted an apocalyptic vision of “180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records … [who] are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens”
Like the corrupt Nixon, who escaped his own impeachment by resigning the office, Trump never intended for “law and order” to act as a foil for corrupt, powerful White men like himself—at least, not the ones who used that power to perpetuate White male superiority.
The “law and order” message, Millsaps College historian Stephanie Rolph told Deep South Voice in a story earlier this month, grew in the 1960s as segregationists sought to court White Southern moderates by convincing them that “the good work of law enforcement” was being tarnished by officers “accused of harassment and brutality toward Black citizens.” Politicians used “law and order” because it was an idea that “Whites embrace as natural to members of their race and foreign to others,” said Rolph, who studies White resistance to integration and is the author of Resisting Equality: The Citizens Council 1954-1989
But “law and order” was never meant to threaten the privilege of unexceptional White men. Instead, segregationists meant to use it as a dogwhistle to court White voters’ racist inclinations with assurances that the law would act as a ceiling for the aspirations of those with a darker complexion, while serving as a floor—if not a trampoline—for White men, just as Trump and Nixon both used it. When investigations of corruption, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice came their way, though, both men cried, “Witch hunt!” as they spiraled into feasts of self-pity.
During his time in office, Trump has issued a number of pardons, including some to people of color who were unfairly convicted or sentenced, but often to White men who were justly convicted of crimes. During his first summer in office, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, a racist Arizona sheriff whom the US Department of Justice found had overseen the worst pattern of racial profiling in US history. After a court convicted the sheriff for criminal contempt of court in July 2017, Trump pardoned him the next month, saying that “Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated” by former President Barack Obama’s administration. Arpaio was an early supporter of Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination for president, endorsing him in January 2016. Trump promised Arpaio that he would “restore law and order on the border and respect [for] the men and women of our police force.”
In 2019, against the advice of the military, Trump pardoned three soldiers who had been convicted of war crimes, including one who was accused of, among other things, murdering a teenage prisoner of war, and shooting and killing a young Muslim girl and an elderly man. While announcing the pardons, Trump lamented that “when they fight, sometimes they get really treated very unfairly.”
Last year, Trump said that he was considering commuting the sentence of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a White Democrat who was impeached, convicted, and removed from his office in 2009 for trying to sell an appointment to Barack Obama’s former US Senate seat. Later that year, a jury convicted Blagojevich of lying to the FBI. In 2010, the former governor appeared as a contestant on The Apprentice with Trump around the same time a federal court sentenced him to serve 14 years in prison.
Blagojevich formally asked Trump for a pardon in 2018. Though Trump has not yet pardoned him, he told reporters last year that he was “strongly” considering clemency, and tweeted that “it was very unfair” that “sleaze bags” in the Justice Department had gotten the ex-governor a 14-year prison sentence. Trump’s sympathy for Blagojevich and his apparent belief that such accusations of bribery are fundamentally unfair aligns with claims that Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig make in their new book, “A Very Stable Genius: Donald Trump’s Testing of America.”
“It’s just so unfair that American companies aren’t allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas,” Trump once said, the book reports.
In 2018, Trump pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative propagandist who pleaded guilty in 2014 to using a “straw donor” to make illegal campaign contributions. Unlike the other men Trump pardoned, D’Souza is not White, but Indian. As a constant Trump defender, though, he has earned the president’s favor. When he’s not defending the GOP leader, D’Souza often spreads claims that systemic racism is a liberal “myth,” even as he frequently attempts to revise the history of the Civil War and the Jim Crow era to tie modern liberals to the historic perpetrators of racism and modern conservative Republicans to its opponents. D’Souza spreads other white supremacist myths, too. In his 1995 book, “The End of Racism,” D’Souza wrote that “the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”
‘The Most Despicable Thing’
Like men accused of war crimes and financial crimes, Trump often reflexively extends his complaints of “unfair” treatment to White men faced with sexual assault allegations, too, including, of course, himself. In 2017, he endorsed Alabama Republican US Senate candidate Roy Moore and said the candidate was being treated “unfairly” after multiple women claimed, with significant corroboration, that an adult Moore had sexually preyed on them when they were minors.
Similarly, when multiple women, including Christine Blasey Ford in sworn testimony before the US Senate, accused Trump’s most recent US Supreme Court pick of sexual assault, Trump moaned that “they’re hurting somebody’s life very badly” and “it’s a very unfair thing what’s going on.” Brett Kavanaugh, he said, was being “treated very, very tough” by senators who demanded an investigation prior to a confirmation vote.
The Republican-dominated Senate, of course, confirmed Kavanaugh, because Trump was not alone in his belief that the mere act of questioning a presumptively honorable White man was unjust on its face. Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, sought to have it both ways, claiming, patronizingly, that she believed someone attacked Christine Blasey Ford, but that the poor dear, an esteemed professor of psychology, must simply be confused about who attacked her. It had been a long time, after all; Ford claimed Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when he was a beer-loving high school student in the 1980s.
US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who had already witnessed more than a year-and-a-half of Donald Trump’s presidency (in addition to his one-and-a-half yearlong presidential campaign) by that time, called Ford’s testimony and the Senate’s attempt to investigate the allegations “the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.”
“This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics and if you really wanted to know the truth, you sure as hell wouldn’t have done what you’ve done to this guy,” a red-faced Graham railed.
US Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, whom former Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (no relation to the Bryants involved in Emmett Till’s death, despite rumors) had appointed to the seat months earlier to fill a vacancy, used her first speech on the Senate floor to defend Kavanaugh. While her heart “[broke] for the victims of assault and abuse,” she said, she considered the accusations “unjust.”
“Today, I was compelled by my duty to our country, the people of Mississippi, and as the first woman to represent our great state in Congress to speak in strong support of Judge Brett Kavanaugh,” Hyde-Smith tweeted later that day.
US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quashed efforts to investigate leads and interview other women who claimed Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted them, leaving the question of his guilt unanswered. That decision gave Republicans like Collins the cover they needed to vote to confirm yet another man with credible allegations of sexual misconduct to the US Supreme Court.
Christine Blasey Ford was just one more woman, in a long line of women, who came forward to make accusations that they knew would subject them to threats and harassment (which happened), only to watch an accused man escape without a serious inquiry into his actions or else with meager consequences.
Two years earlier, in 2016, a jury convicted 19-year-old Stanford student Brock Turner, a White man, on three counts of sexual assault. Turner, like Kavanaugh in Ford’s story, was at a college party when it happened. While Ford said she was conscious and able to escape when Kavanaugh apparently attacked her, though, Turner, apparently inebriated himself, sexually assaulted an unconscious woman near a dumpster. after a fraternity party. When a prosecutor requested a six-year prison sentence, Turner’s father protested, saying it would be “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
The judge sentenced Turner to just six months; he served half that time. Two years later, the US Senate seemed to confirm the notion that the real injustice lies in the fact that the drunken frat boys of the world should ever face sexual assault allegations or repercussions. Not only are White men entitled to get away with such alleged “youthful indiscretions” without penalties or even investigations, the Senate essentially affirmed, but it also ought not slow down their ascent to the nation’s highest court.
Impeachment: A Threat to ‘Our Way of Life’
More than a year after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, as Trump himself now stands trial in the Senate, McConnell, Graham, and other Republicans have gone out of their way to rig the impeachment trial in Trump’s favor in order to guard him against damaging new evidence and testimony.
On January 21, McConnell called the House investigation (which Trump and his attorneys refused to participate in despite invitations from House leaders) an “unfair” process, arguing that Democrats should not be allowed to force the Senate to agree to admit new evidence for the trial or call witnesses. Two days later, Trump tweeted that the House impeachment hearings were the “Most unfair & corrupt … in Congressional history!”
The evidence leaves little doubt that Trump committed the abuses for which he stands accused, and his defense has often waffled between “it’s not a crime” and false claims that there is no evidence at all. On January 24, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, claimed that Trump’s attempted extortion of Ukraine’s president was simply indicative of “good government.” The White House and Trump’s Republican defenders have also tried to argue that Democrats have not interviewed key direct witnesses, knowing full well Trump has ordered every single witness congressional investigators have sought not to testify.
Perhaps none of Trump’s defenders, though, have gotten closer to the truth than Republican US Senator Kelly Loeffler. Before she assumed office in early January, the Georgia business executive espoused some of the same race-based demagoguery that made Trump a right-wing hero, warning in an op-ed that Democrats wanted Trump out of the way so they could unleash “socialism” on the country and let “Mexican drug cartels” roam free. Loeffler also offered what she considers the real motive behind Trump’s impeachment.
“The left’s impeachment circus is about more than just overturning an election, but our way of life,” Loeffler wrote, using a segregation-era talking-point that “spoke directly to what (segregationists) considered a unique and practical way to preserve white supremacy,” historian Stephanie Rolph told DSV for that story. While examining old newspaper stories from the 1940s through the 1960s, DSV found thousands of instances in which segregationists used “our way of life” as coded language for “white supremacy.”
For many, Trump is the ultimate poster boy for the power of white supremacy and patriarchy to elevate even the most subpar of White men well beyond the station in life they have earned, and his failure would represent the unraveling of a system upon which countless men like him desperately depend.
‘The Custodians of American Civilization’
As so-called “outside agitators” and the Northern press descended on the little Mississippi town of Sumner to document the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers, the State’s White residents reacted with typical suspicions, claiming that all the national attention was an effort to undermine the “Southern way of life.” Aggrieved White Mississippians adorned their automobile with stickers and tags that read, “Mississippi—The Most Lied About State in the Union.”
At trial, the defense played on those White racist anxieties by floating a baseless theory, first offered by Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider, that claimed “rabble rousers” had planted Till’s body in the river to foster the creation of propaganda against the segregated Southern lifestyle. Defense attorney John Whitten admitted that Bryant and Milam had abducted Till, but claimed they released him. Later that night, Whitten absurdly posited, Till’s uncle must have taken him to meet with someone affiliated with the NAACP, who then must have convinced the boy to put his ring on a “rotten stinking corpse” so that his mother would identify the body as his (DNA tests proved the body was Till’s in 2005).
“There are people in the United States who want to defy the customs of the South and would commit perhaps any crime known to man in order to widen the gap,” Whitten said during closing arguments. “These people are not all in … Chicago; they are in Jackson and Vicksburg. … They include doctors and undertakers and they have ready access to a corpse which could meet their purpose.”
The defense then unmistakably called on the jury to uphold the South’s “way of life”—white supremacy. Whitten told the jury he “was confident ‘that every last Anglo-Saxon of you has the courage’ to perform his duty,” The Guardian reported in 1955.
Then, another defense attorney, JW Kellum, told the all-White, all-male jury that they were “the custodians of American civilization” and that their ancestors were depending on them to uphold their cultural inheritance.
“If you don’t turn these boys loose, your forefathers will absolutely turn over in their graves,” he warned them.
The special prosecutor in the case, Robert Smith III, vainly attempted to turn those fears against the defense, telling the jurors that if they wanted to preserve their “way of life,” they must convict Milam and Bryant.
“There is no doubt that outside influences are trying to destroy our way of life. But once we take the life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness from anyone, we will be put on the defensive and become vulnerable in trying to justify our stand,” Smith argued. “If JW Milan and Roy Bryant are turned loose, it will serve the purpose of the very organizations that have come down here to stir up trouble. If you convict them, no one can use this to raise funds to fight us in our defense of Southern traditions.”
Not long afterward, the jury rendered its decision, with “every last Anglo-Saxon” one voting to free Emmett Till’s killers, rubber-stamping their right to kidnap a Black child, brutalize him, shoot him, and under a hot August sun in the Mississippi Delta, dump his maimed, lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River.
Till’s body was so disfigured that the only way his uncle was able to confirm it was him was by examining the ring on his finger. The day before Till left his home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi that summer, his mother, Mamie Till, gave him an initialed ring that had belonged to his father, Private Louis Till, who had been killed while serving in Italy when the boy was just 4 years old. For years, the boy had tried his father’s ring on; that summer marked the first time his fingers had grown enough for it to fit.
There is no debate about whether or not Bryant and Milam really murdered the child. The trial was a sham. Throughout, local law enforcement showed utter apathy toward the Black boy’s death, as evidenced by the Tallahatchie County sheriff who would greet a segregated table of Black reporters each morning with a hearty, “Hello, niggers.”
The next year, in 1956, Bryant and Milam accepted $4,000 to share, in graphic detail with Look Magazine, the story of how they had kidnapped, tortured, and murdered the 14-year-old boy. In 2007, Carolyn Bryant admitted that she made up at least some of the claims about her interactions with Till in the grocery store, admitting that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” By 2019, though, John Whitten’s son, who was 7-years-old at the time, was still sticking with the take he had learned back then.
“Fella who came down here and got in trouble—overstepped his bounds to a degree some folks thought. And they cured him of his problems,” the younger John Whitten told NPR last year.
The Manchild of White Supremacy
During the trial of Till’s killers, press reports noted that elsewhere in Sumner stood a sign that welcomed visitors with the message: “Sumner—A Good Place to Raise a Boy.” And it was—if your boy was White and you worried he might someday go on trial for murdering a Black child.
It was—if you were Roy Bryant, and your two boys, ages 2 and 3, were able to sit in your lap and play while you waited for a jury to confirm that, yes, you could murder someone else’s child and get away with it. It was—if you were JW Milam, clutching your sons, ages 2 and 4, while you waited for a jury to affirm your right, as a member of the dominant sex and the allegedly superior race, to commit heinous crimes without consequence, so long as those crimes were committed in the furtherance of your own dominance.
Any other decision, as Bryant and Milam’s attorneys understood, would have risked shattering the fragile façade upon which White male supremacy rests, threatening to reveal, in all its naked shame, the true impotent nature of the ideology itself—that, instead of a divine law written in stone, the doctrine of white male supremacy is akin to an exceedingly unexceptional manchild, who, as a small boy, learned hand-me-down narcissism from parents who assured him that he was more special than all the other boys (and certainly more-so than even all the best girls).
It is a man child who sustained that mirage with a refusal to contemplate self-doubt, his ever-gnawing insecurities kept at bay only by the world’s collusive willingness to entertain his delusion until they, too, revered the absurdity as a special law unto itself. It is a manchild who, once he made disciples of the multitudes so that they, too, followed the lie, convinced them that the imperative to protect and further it was, in fact, the greatest law of all.
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