Week 1: A “Current” Counter-history: How Jet Magazine Countered The New York Times


As is discussed in question 2 posed for this post, Hartman’s interesting goal in her writing is to present the untold history of slave women as being “inseparable from writing a history of the present” (Hartman 4).  Considering she writes based on documents over 150 years old, Hartman is bringing these texts and their “count-historical” truths forward to reflect upon the present, saying “by which I mean the incomplete project of freedom, and the precarious life of the ex-slave, a condition defined by the vulnerability to premature death and to gratuitous acts of violence” (Hartman 4). The incomplete project of freedom is a powerful and true statement for the black communities of America, who continue to attempt to address their issues of poverty, inequality advantages, and other issues, as was discussed by Anthony and Kevin in our class last Thursday. 

To continue with the theme of Hartman’s attempt to bring forward a counter-history of the events of the past, Wanda Coleman’s readings exemplified a horrendous act of violence against a black boy in 1955, Emmett Loius (Bobo) Till, who was kidnapped, beaten, murdered and his body dumped in a river to be found three days after his violent kidnapping from his grandfather’s home. Coleman’s discussion of the event stands as “the harbinger of social change (she) longed for” (252).  Till’s death was in a time of the growth of the Civil Rights Movement, but long before it hit the media, or the major movements of the protests (Montgomery Bus Boycott, or Freedom Riders), and 10 years (within the same month) of the Watts Uprising. 

It is in moments like Till’s death, where “gratuitous acts of violence” causes a counter-history to be traced most effectively, unfortunately. The article printed for The New York Times coverage of the murder is about a 200 word report, ending unapologetically with a statement of the pastor where the boy’s body was on display saying, “Pamphlets were passed out in front of the funeral parlor last night telling us what to do… These pamphlets were passed out by Communists. Pay no heed. We don’t need Communists.” At the end of a short, yet detailed blurb dedicated to the event of 10,000 black people gathering to mourn and see the horror of the first lynching in four years of a 14 year old boy, there is a warning that “We don’t need Communists.” It is well known American history that the “Red Scare” was taking place in the 1950s, and it may not have been questioned by the white community that would read this article, but for the black community who were reminded of the horrors of lynching, the depravity and fear with which they were submitting to the white community, this 200 word article is an insult, especially when looking at the placement of it, in the updates for shipping and weather reports of the nation, lost in the middle of niche nonsense. 

Jet magazine’s article, a two page spread with vivid photographs of the body, the family, and paraphernalia of the crime is not only a counter-history, but a proper news report of an event of this size. With details of the names of the accused, the full event of the whistling “incident” that lead to the kidnap and brutal murder, and details of the kidnapping taking place in the vacation home of Emmett Till, the true horror of the crimes are made clear, unlike the NYT ending in a warning of Communist activities. This is a moment that is reflected by Hartman’s words of “the precarious life of the ex-slave, a condition defined by the vulnerability to premature death and to gratuitous acts of violence.” Jet magazine, a black magazine, was providing the whole truth, because the white mainstream media was pushing the event to the shipping pages. Jet’s history should be seen as a more true history than the NYT. With its documentation alone it is the more significant source of historical fact, and without the passive-aggressive anti-communist influence of the Times article, it is less biased source, even if it is a black community magazine. As such, it stands as a counter history in the immediate moment, blatantly and ably providing an argument against the “history” as told by the white main stream media of the time. 

One comment on “Week 1: A “Current” Counter-history: How Jet Magazine Countered The New York Times
  1. “With its documentation alone it is the more significant source of historical fact, and without the passive-aggressive anti-communist influence of the Times article, it is less biased source, even if it is a black community magazine.”

    Allison, your work on both the Jet and New York Times articles was comprehensive and featured some salient points about both publications. It inspired me to see if I could find another “text” or news source to put in conversation with these two articles. Initially I had intended to find the contemporary issue of Ebony magazine, which I thought might add another significant voice to our discussion of the way in which Emmett Till’s death was portrayed in the media. Unfortunately I cannot find archived issues earlier than 1959. What I did find was an article, written in 2003, about the “M.O.M.S” club — or, the “mothers of murdered sons” (28). The “un-elected president” of that club? Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother, who “turned her rage and grief at the wanton murder of her son into a lifelong crusade with a dual purpose — to keep his memory alive and to better the lives of Black children.” Ebony also writes that “those of us who grew up in Emmett’s shadow are forever in debt to… ‘Mother Mobley’” — signaling a sense of community, a collective existence and experience. Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision to put her son’s brutalized body on display was an act of “courage… [that] helped mobilize a fighting spirit in Black people nationally.” They link this “spirit” with the induction of the Civil Rights Movement across America. They also quote “Mother Mobley” as having said “Emmett’s death was not a personal experience for me to hug myself and weep, but it was a worldwide awakening that would change the course of history.”

    Mamie Till-Mobley’s death had occurred prior to this Ebony article being written and, while not an obituary per se, it does make mention of her “regal splendor in all white” at her own funeral as well as her life’s accomplishments, her education, her time as a schoolteacher, her fortitude and conviction in the fact that “exposing Mississippi’s shame to the world” would be doing right by her son Emmett. Her voice is manifest throughout this article, with lengthy quotations that speak to her strength and her moral fortitude. The fact of “Mother Mobley’s” death compelled me to see if any other news outlets had written about her passing and naturally my mind went immediately to the New York Times. I was curious as to how they would depict her life and death given their glib, dismissive, quasi-critical treatment of her son’s death decades earlier. In her obituary, the Times writes that “After the killing of her 14-year-old son in 1955 in Money, Miss., Mrs. Mobley allowed his mutilated body to be displayed in an open coffin during his funeral service, where mourners recoiled at the sight of Emmett’s wounds.” Something about the cadence / tone of this sentence strikes me as “off.” Is it because it reads as slightly sensational? Is it because it comes across as somewhat… abrupt? They also devote a single sentence to the lynching itself, “Emmett was killed for supposedly whistling at a white woman, an act that in the Jim Crow South could mean a lynching for a black man,” though they do suggest that “His death came to symbolize the brutality in the racist South and became a symbol of the civil rights movement.” The article goes on to include quotations about Mamie Till-Mobley and one quotation from the subject of this obituary itself. While the tone of the article is consistent with the Times “obit style” it does seem as though this was a wasted opportunity to redress what I believe we all understood to be an injustice by the NYT in their treatment of her son’s death. Where these two articles diverge most strikingly is that in the case of Ebony, Mother Mobley’s life and death mattered to “us.”

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