ORLANDO | In 1955 in Mississippi, a white woman lied and told her husband Black teen Emmett Till flirted with her in the grocery story. In retaliation, her husband and another man kidnapped, beat, shot and lynched the youth.
His body was found three days after his murder and returned to his native Chicago. His mother had an open casket for the 14-year-old’s funeral, where tens of thousands visited his body. Among them were an 11-year-old Edward Braxton, his brother, Lawrence, and his uncle, Ellis. They waited two hours in line to view the body.
“I peered into the glass coffin and beheld the terrifying remains of a vicious murder,” the now 73-year-old bishop of Belleville, Ill. “He did not look like a human being. Emmett’s mother was sitting in a chair, uncontrollable crying, saying, ‘My baby. My baby. Why? Why did I send him down South. I looked into her red-rimmed eyes not knowing what to say.”
Uncle Ellis repeatedly told his nephews, “I don’t want you ever to forget this night.” And Bishop Braxton never did. They were never convicted of murder. And when he visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he was transported to that day in 1955.
“For me personally the most devastating experience in the history gallery was coming face-to-face with the original coffin of dear Emmett Till, which I had not seen in 60 years,” Bishop Braxton said during his keynote address July 8 at the National Black Catholic Congress, adding that “dear Emmett Till” was one of 3,446 African Americans lynched between 1882 and 1968. “I have never forgotten (my uncle’s) words. I have never forgotten the unrecognizable bloated, totally mutilated face behind the glass in that coffin … Seeing that coffin again, brought it back again.”
That was only one piece of history at the museum that registered great emotions for the bishop, who has written extensively on the racial divide in America from a theological and pastoral perspective. Among his writings are two pastoral letters, “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015” and “The Catholic Church and the Black Lives Matter Movement: The Racial Divide in the United States Revisited,” issued in 2016.
Bishop Braxton described how the museum is in eyeshot of monuments of Americans such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom owned “enslaved free human beings,” along with the Capitol and the White House, both built in part by enslaved free human beings. The history presented at the museum is not pretty, but so important and he urged everyone to visit the museum, especially the lower levels.
“I realized 60 percent of the museum is actually underground and it is underground deliberately because the architect wanted to give you the feeling that you were … maybe inside a slave ship crowded with very little room to move about,” he recalled. “The images in the museum reminded me of what happened to free human beings as they crossed the Atlantic in the Middle Passage. Human beings chained side by side on top of one another in unspeakable squalor, cramped in darkness. … An estimated 2 million people lost their lives during the Middle Passage of this African holocaust.”
Although he recognized the museum as an outstanding achievement, Bishop Braxton lamented the lack of references to leading African-American Catholics such as Father Augustus Tolton, the Sisters of the of the Holy Family, Sister Henriette Delille, Father Pierre Tousant, Mother Mary Lange, or Sister Thea Bowman at the museum. There are nearly 68 million Catholics in United States, but only 2.9 million are black.
“These absences reminded me that African-American Catholics then and now were already invisible in the larger influential black church,” Bishop Braxton said. “At the same time, African-Americans were and remain all but invisible in the larger influential and largely European-American Catholic Church.”
The bishop urged the attendees that they could all do something to know their own history and to be engaged in the community. They must exercise their rights to vote, participate in public life, run for public life, use resources that develop discussion about the racial divide, inspire young people to become involved.
“I give you these imperatives: Listen, learn, think, act and pray,” he said. “African-American Catholics need to get into real conversations with others in the community about this history so we can grow by means of knowledge.”
Before closing, Bishop Braxton brought up a theme that he has “raised for years, to no avail” — that “people of color should no longer accept the designation of African Americans as a minority. We are not a minority; we are Americans.” Referencing the words of the poet Langston Hughes, “We, too, sing America.”
“The word minority group is a term used to divide, not to unite,” he said. “The God who is God has no color, has no race, has dimensionality. It is so important that we depict the universality of the mission of God, showing diversity of the City of the Kingdom of God.”
Since the theme of the congress focused on a passage by Micah, Bishop Braxton spoke about the biblical figure, known as the prophet of social justice, whose warnings and criticism of political corruption and urging of caring for the poor still ring true 2,700 years later. The congress gathered in the backdrop of Micah’s words to do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with God, and the bishop said the prophet would not be satisfied with those words solely emblazoned on T-shirts, banners and bags.
“Micah would demand to see these words written in our hearts, in our daily actions when we leave Orlando and return to our dioceses, neighborhoods, parish communities and families,” Bishop Braxton said.