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Family history reveals past of racial inequality, requires attention

Milam's Musings,

My column has always been about musings -- on politics, religion, student life and the personal -- but this time, I want to make it about the other part of this column's namesake: Milam.

Charles M. Blow, columnist for the New York Times, gave a speech this past Monday about #BlackLivesMatter.

Blow is as eloquent and poetic in his oratory as he is in his writing, even though much of what he said was "preaching to the choir."

I've written a lot about #BlackLivesMatter within this column and otherwise and I knew with Blow coming to campus, I would want to write about it.

But what new way could I write about the movement and the issues therein?

I'm tired of refuting and restating the same old arguments that fall on deaf ears. I'm tired of reiterating factual statistics and citing studies that seem to not matter, either.

Talking about white privilege and the power structures that maintain it also doesn't seem to be working.

Then, Blow started his speech with the story of Emmett Till, which presented me with an opportunity to talk about black lives in a new way.

In 1955, Till was a 14-year-old black boy in Mississippi at a meat market, who was said to have wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who happened to be the wife of the store's owner, Roy.

A few days later, Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W., kidnapped, beat, tortured and shot Till in the head and pushed him into the Tallahatchie River.

Till's mother, Mamie, opted for an open casket, despite Till being unrecognizable and brutalized, to "let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this."

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That moment -- thousands of people attending the open-casket funeral of a brutalized 14-year-old black boy -- is often cited as the catalyst for the Civil Rights movement.

Just four months after this incident, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus.

"I thought of Emmett Till, and when the bus driver order me to move to the back, I just couldn't move," Parks said.

Blow said Till was the first instance of a black life mattering.

Bryant and J.W. were arrested and charged with the murder and then predictably acquitted by a jury of 12 white men, having deliberated for only 67 minutes.

Later on, both confessed everything in Look magazine to William Bradford Huie, a journalist for the magazine.

J.W.'s last name was Milam. In fact, his nickname was "Big Milam." Look magazine described him as six feet two, 235 pounds, an extrovert with jet-black hair and a lower lip curl.

Huie says of Milam, "Those who know him say that he can handle Negroes better than anybody in the country."

Big Milam wanted to put Till in his place, so he said to Look, regarding what he said to Till, "Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you -- just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'"

It was Milam, using a .45 Colt automatic pistol from his time in the Army, who sent the fatal shot through Till's head.

My family name is connected, in whatever manner you want to say, to arguably the most notorious crime in American history.

I had known for years that one of Till's killers bore the name Milam because my great grandpa has an interest in genealogy and I've seen it in history textbooks, but I didn't know what to do with this information.

I didn't know what to make of it and how to think about it.

The furthest we can trace the Milam name is to John Milam of Virginia in the mid-1700s. There are the 1600s Boston Milams, too, but the connection hasn't been made concrete yet.

J.W. was a descendant of John; my lineage in particular comes from John's brother, Thomas.

There have been other interesting Milams, like Benjamin Rush Milam, a rather heroic name in Texas, particularly in Milam County, Texas, named after him. Benjamin was my grandpa's great, great uncle.

There was the Milum Apple, grafted by Thomas Milam and mentioned by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

My grandpa's grandfather, William Allen Milam, at just 15 and taking the place of his father, fought in the Civil War as a Union soldier. He was with General Sherman when he burned Atlanta and even named his son after Sherman.

I asked my grandpa why digging into the Milam family tree was important to him.

"Different things are important to different people," he said. "I feel a connection when I learn more about where I came from."

I also like learning about my family name. I particularly am fascinated by the various spellings: Mileham, Milom, Milum, Mylam and of course, Milam.

Still, it's the connection to Emmett Till, which most vexes me. My grandpa didn't know about the connection until he dug into the history.

"It really upset me to know what happened and that a Milam was responsible and was unrepentant," he said.

It seems like it's in our conception of history, whether as a country or as individuals, where we most fail to connect the dots.

As a country, plagued by the need to hide our sins and declare our innocence, we -- we, being white people -- have the privilege to declare the momentum of history's cessation.

Which is to say, a defiant reader may declare, "Okay, what happened to Till was terrible, truly, but it was 60 years ago. Things are different now."

It is true, much has changed in the 60 years since Till's grotesque and unjust murder, but can we say, given what we know about the current state of black lives in this country, that they matter?

Is the very defiance to the #BlackLivesMatter movement axiomatic proof of this?

Let me lay the historical timeline out. Blacks in this country were enslaved, raped, tortured, terrorized and killed for 245 years until slavery was abolished. And in that time, they were obviously kept from literacy, accumulating wealth and building strong families since families were often separated.

Then, for another century, blacks were terrorized and lynched either by the most successful domestic terrorist organization in this country's history (the KKK) or by people like Bryant and Milam.

Along with that, blacks were forced into the ghettos by redlining, kept from owning homes, voting and segregated in the public space.

Within the last 45 years, we have elected the first black president. The KKK is still around, but mostly a sideshow act. And overtly, individual racism is ostracized in society.

But 350 years of historical momentum aimed at keeping black people "in their place" as Big Milam desired, doesn't suddenly stop being momentum because of our better intentions.

Even if the systems in place today were actually reflective of black lives mattering, blacks would still have years of catching up to the advantages generations of white people have been given.

I write this not because I feel personally guilty about Emmett Till's death. The thesis of white privilege -- the thesis of #BlackLivesMatter -- is not about making white people feel guilty.

I write this because I grew up on the side of power and privilege where my ancestor could terrorize, brutalize and murder a black boy, avoid justice and live to die of cancer 25 years later.

Many Milams historically were poor farmers. Bryant and J.W., by all accounts, lived poor lives, too.

I grew up middle class in America, but by no means have my parents had an easy life.

But the one thing we have, the poor farmer Milams had, and J.W. had, is that we were and are white.

As Blow said in his speech, proof of black lives mattering less is that none of those poor farmers, J.W., nor I, could honestly say they would trade that in for being black in a society in which blackness does not matter.

I write this because such a historical and present day fact matters and the forces which gave rise to that power dynamic doesn't stop mattering because I have the privilege of saying it does.