GREENSBORO, NC - She has never seen the picture before and it stops her.
Tania Smith, a Haiti-born, 20-year-old American University student, is participating in the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, commemorating the series of rolling desegregation protests that changed the country in 1961. Today, the tour has brought her to this city and, specifically, to the Hall of Shame of its International Civil Rights Museum.
She has walked down that hall past the photo of a thing that used to be a man, now burned to charcoal, past the photo of the men hanging in the tree as onlookers laugh and point from below, past the photo of the little girl with the swollen face and gauze patches over her eyes.
It is the last picture that stops her, Emmett Till in his casket.
Dozens of times Ive seen it, and it does not stop me any more, this image of a 14-year-old lynching victim from Chicago who went to Mississippi - a cocky, handsome black boy and came back a misshapen obscenity, bloated from the waters of the Talahatchie River, barely recognizable as something once human.
The picture no longer takes me by surprise. I am used to it.
Tania Smith is not. She stands there in the darkness of the hall, weeping. One of her fellow students offers her a tissue. She accepts without a word.
Later, she talks about that moment and the words tumble out of her like live coals, as if she cannot make her mouth move fast enough to express the anguish of her thoughts.
To see how much hate, you know, was involved in that era, the leaders and the activists of the Civil Rights Movement, they werent just fighting against injustice, they werent just fighting against institutional laws of segregation. They were fighting against hate, such a hate that enabled man to be able to beat and kill and shoot his fellow man. Like, to be able to look at another human being and have no remorse of killing him just because of the color of his skin, to me, its just mind-blowing to have that much hate.
She understands now, she says, why the architects of the civil rights movement chose nonviolent protest as their weapon.
You cant defeat hate with hate. And so, the nonviolence movement, they projected love because love balances hate. Look at what hatred got us. Those faces in that room are the consequences of hatred.
The experience of traveling through the racial history of the American South, of seeing the corpse of Emmett Till, has, she says, left her burning with a desire to be an agent of change. When she gets back to school, she wants to organize a campus wide dialogue to confront Islamophobia, homophobia and any other kinds of prejudice that we might have.
It is always hard to watch when the bad thing you take for granted becomes the bad thing someone else has just discovered. It is always difficult to see a young person come face to face with how mean the world can be, to bear witness as the native optimism and faith of youth runs aground on the shores of The Way Things Are. To do so is to watch something innocent stolen away and know that it will never return.
When we are lucky, though, the young person responds to that theft as Smith did not with defeat, but with a determination whose sheer ferocity makes you wonder when you got so old.
He was so young, she says of Till. It just shows
they didnt even care. This was just a child
. And his face, the way that he was scarred, the agony of his mother, I couldnt even imagine having lost a 14-year-old child in such a brutal manner.
She is right. Some things you should never get used to.