I asked [Emmett Till case juror Howard Armstrong] if racial tensions were sharpened there afterward. ”There wasn’t as much tensions as there are now,” he said. ”We’ve always had some good black friends,” his wife added. ”Very good.” ”Go to Charleston,” he told me, ”Talk to any of the blacks that was raised with me, and they’ll tell you I was anything but a racist.” And I found that statement more disturbing than anything that Ray Tribble, or J.W. Kellum, or John Whitten had said to me. Because I believed him. I believed that Howard Armstrong was not a racist. I felt I had gotten to the point where I could spot a racist of almost any type in almost any circumstance, and he was not one. And yet he had voted — at least three times, by his own account — to acquit two men who were clearly guilty of a horrific, racist crime.
I have spent a lot of time contemplating that conundrum over the past 10 years, and I have come to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is ours. We tend to think of racism, and racists, the way we think of most things — in binary terms. Someone is either a racist or he isn’t. If he is a racist, he does racist things; if he isn’t, he doesn’t. But of course it’s much more complicated than that, and in the Mississippi of 1955 it was more complicated still. Today, we can look back and say that Howard Armstrong should have voted to convict Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of murdering Emmett Till; but for him to buck the established order like that would have actually required him to make at least four courageous decisions. First, he would have had to decide that the established order, the system in which he had lived his entire life, was wrong. Second, he would have had to decide that it should change. Third, he would have had to decide that it could change. And finally, he would have had to decide that he himself should do something to change it. Howard Armstrong never made it to that final step. Another juror apparently did, and managed to stay there through two votes before backing down. It is frustrating to me that I will probably never know who that other juror was, where he found the courage that got him that far and why, ultimately, he changed his mind. But it is even more frustrating to me to imagine that Howard Armstrong made it past Step 1 but got tripped up on 2 or 3.
I only wonder if it was frustrating for him, too. In 1995, sitting with him in his living room, I took his answers, his unwavering declarations that he had no regrets, at face value; today, I’m not so sure. Rereading my notes after 10 years, I can perceive a certain defensiveness in his words, an urge to keep the conversation short and narrow, perhaps cut off the next question before it could be asked. His insistence, like J.W. Kellum’s, that this was just another trial feels flat now. And then there’s his vacillation on the matter of whether or not the defendants were ”outlaws.” Did he really believe, in both 1955 and 1995, that Bryant and Milam were innocent, and that he himself had done the right thing in voting to set them free? Or was this merely something he repeatedly told himself — and others — to get by? I do believe he was not a racist in 1995. But had he been one in 1955 and then grew, in subsequent decades, so ashamed of that fact that he did everything he could to defeat it in his own mind?
I don’t know if Howard Armstrong could have answered those questions then, but I imagine he didn’t want to try. It was easier on him, I’m sure, to believe that he had just forgotten all about it.
Richard Rubin, remarking on how a juror in the famed trial of the two men who murdered Emmett Till decided to allow for the injustice of their acquittal to stand. This also explains why so many traditionalists and others aid and abet Zip Code Education policies and other policies and practices that condemn our poorest children to despair. Which is why reformers must stand boldly against the injustice that is the nation’s education crisis.
If we want Louisiana’s economy to continue to grow and remain a top destination for new businesses investment, we must put a premium on student achievement. Ask any job creator what he values most, and chances are they’ll tell you it’s a highly skilled workforce. That’s why we need to make sure every child has the opportunity to get a great education so they have the skills to succeed in the workforce.
The inflection point to change our education system happened over seven years ago when Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans’ school infrastructure – a system that frankly was already failing our kids. The storm made us rethink the way we deliver services to our people – especially in our education system. So we set out to improve our schools in New Orleans and across the state to make sure we focused on what’s best for parents and students…
Every single reform we passed is tied back to improving student achievement to make sure that kids are not simply going through the motions in school, but instead, that students are in environments where they are getting the skills they need to be successful in the classroom and in the workforce… I don’t accept the notion that equal opportunity in education should be a partisan issue, and I’ll continue to work to improve Louisiana schools so we can give our kids the skills they need to find a job in the 21st century workforce.
Bobby Jindal, explaining why bipartisanship is critical to advancing systemic reform.
Michael Bloomberg threw down the gauntlet today. He’s obviously very serious about changing education in America, and Los Angeles is now ground zero for that effort.
University of Southern California scholar Dan Schnur on the outgoing New York City mayor’s move to support reform-minded candidates and incumbents for L.A. Unified School District’s upcoming board elections. Certainly the Diane Ravitches and even some less-than-thoughtful movement conservatives see this as a conspiracy.