What’s Up With Mose Wright?

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I am curious. 

Several months ago, I posted a piece about an extraordinary man who I have always felt was one of the least known and least celebrated heroes of the civil rights movement.

Mose Wright was Emmett Till’s uncle. At great personal danger, Mr. Wright testified twice against those who we now know murdered Emmett Till.

What is baffling to  me is why so many people have continued to read that post on my site  every day. It’s great that there is interest in Mr. Wright.  But I thought maybe someone could help me figure out why so many people want to read this story.  

I really am thrilled that so many people are interested.

We Are Their Witnesses

Addie Mae Collins, Barack Hussein Obama,Sr., Carole Robertson, Coretta Scott King, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Emmett Till, Harry Truman, Harvey Milk, Hubert Humphrey, John Kennedy, John McCormack, Lady Bird Johnson, Lyndon Johnson, Madelyn Dunham, Medgar Evers, Paul Wellstone, Reverend C.L. Franklin, Robert Kennedy, Ron Brown,  Stanley Dunham, Steven Biko, Thomas Dorsey, Thomas Ferris, Tip O’Neill, Fannie Lou Hamer.

Mose Wright: Never Flinched. Never Hesitated.

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This morning I was thinking about how quickly our culture anoints heroes. Some unspeakable act occurs and, in a desperate attempt to find a savior, heroes are selected and honored while the accused are demonized. In our infinite patience, we do this so quickly that medals are often presented before we even know exactly what the hero did.

Isn’t this backwards?

Doesn’t the magnitude of an act of courage only become clear with the passage of time, when we can look back and see the historical context in which an act was truly selfless? On the other hand, doesn’t time also occasionally reveal the self-interest and even selfishness that might have been the actual motive for an act initially hailed as courageous?

Here is my favorite scenario  for what makes a genuine hero:  A modest, decent person does something quintessentially selfless without regard for personal safety. Some people pay attention, but — for a whole host of reasons — the act takes place below the radar of public attention. Maybe the hero isn’t especially desirable. Maybe he or she is a member of a despised group. Or maybe the act itself is such a violation of current values that it is reviled rather than admired.

But then, as time passes, the magnitude of the act – the extent to which it fearlessly transcended the conventions of the moment — slowly becomes clear. And decades later we ask ourselves: How did anyone have the guts to do that?

And so I present my choice for a hero.

The 1955 murder of Emmett Till was a seminal moment in the history of the civil rights movement.Till was a 14 year-old African American from Chicago visiting his family in Mississippi. When he violated the unwritten laws of segregation by talking to a white woman, he was abducted and brutally murdered. Photographs of his open-coffin funeral, revealing an unspeakably savage beating, were widely circulated. Emmett’s mother Mamie became a passionate and eloquent voice for social justice.

My hero, though, is Mose Wright. Mr. Wright was Emmett’s uncle and a witness to the abduction. When two men were accused of the crime, Wright chose to be a witness at the trial and personally identified the two white defendants. At the time, observers at the trial could not recall another example of a black man testifying against a white defendant. Wright moved to Chicago, but once more – ignoring warnings that he would be killed –returned to testify against his nephew’s killers. He never flinched or hesitated.

There’s a lot more to the story. The defendants were acquitted, yet later admitted the killing to Look Magazine for $4000.

And even more, many year later.

Wright died at the age of 83 in 1973.

There is courage. There is heroism. There is selflessness. There is sacrifice. There is near-greatness. There is greatness.

And sometimes, there is a Mose Wright.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo: My Nightmare. Our Nightmare.

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Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers let him go,

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

I have spent over a week trying to find the words to tell this story. It is 3:00 a.m.  I am in a strange hotel bed with lousy pillows. I can’t sleep. Maybe a nightmare is best told at 3:00 am.

When Barack Obama was elected President, the social and cultural earthquake I wanted so badly became possible. Certainly not an earthquake that would magically provide a final resolution to hundreds of years of shame, but one that might rip open the racial fault line with a vengeance.

And then came the rhyme.  The damn rhyme.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers let him go,

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

My ten year-old daughter, trying to make some choice about lunch or a friend, was employing the old “eeny meeny miny moe” test.  I think she and the tiger ended up picking the tuna sandwich. Yet I almost immediately recalled the countless times in 1950s schoolyards when kids used the same rhyme with a word other than tiger. It was the version that Rudyard Kipling published in 1923 as “A Counting-Out Song” in “Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides:”

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

Catch a nigger by the toe!

If he hollers let him go!

Eenee, Meenee. Mainee, Mo!

You-are-It!

 This would now be the time to confess that I also said that word out on the playground.  But I didn’t. I do remember how it was often used to settle marble-trading disputes. I also remember kids feeling a perverse thrill that they could vicariously participate in the larger, social ugliness.

 But this was a word that could not have been more forbidden in our house, a word I never uttered after the day — at the age of six – that my wonderful Dad heard me say it and placed a bar of Ivory Soap in my mouth and twisted it around a few times.

 But I am stuck. The rhyme echoes and echoes.  A nightmare.   A rhyme. I want to fully celebrate that Barack Obama will be my President. I will. But the intruder is a rhyme; an echo of an ugliness that was part of what delayed this day for so long.

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

And that is where I am right now at 3 a.m.

Knowing that at virtually the very moment that Emmett Till faced his final horror, at the very moment that his mother Mamie first heard the news, kids in my neighborhood were probably out in a park – shooting marbles or playing tag – and reciting:

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

Catch a nigger by the toe!

If he hollers let him go!

Eenee, Meenee. Mainee, Mo!

You-are-It!

 A rhyme. A nightmare.  Our nightmare.