Joe Biden, Senator Eastland and Emmett Till

The Nation recently published an article entitled: “When Joe Biden collaborated with segregationists,” examining Biden’s opposition to school integration. The author mentions Biden’s alliance with the notorious “segregationist,” James Oliver Eastland. Eastland, Mississippi’s senator from 1943 to 1978, was known as the “Godfather of Mississippi politics.” Biden wrote Eastland to thank him for his support on ills against court ordered busing: “I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help in attempting to bring my anti-busing legislation to a vote.” Eastland was chairman of the senate judiciary committee, making him someone an ambitious first term senator would want to court. It may be easy, then, to excuse Biden’s solicitousness as pragmatism. How fair is it to criticize Biden for maintaining cordial, even friendly relationships with powerful senators who had stood strongly athwart the movement to secure to Black Americans our human rights? One incident from Eastland’s career throws light on the answer.

James Eastland was born in Doddsville, Mississippi where he owned and managed a 6000 acre cotton plantation inherited from his father. Doddsville is 20 miles from Money, Mississippi, the Delta hamlet where Chicago teenager, Emmett Till, was abducted by two, many say four, men in 1955 and brutally tortured to death before being thrown into the Tallahatchie river with a 74 pound cotton gin fan around his neck, for the imagined crime of whistling at a White woman. Eastland’s response to this case is what interests me.

The crime itself is well known to us, its symbolism a monument to the unlimited depravity of White supremacy, but the reports of witnesses add a chilling dimension that I only became familiar with in writing this post. I’ve found these reports indispensable in judging Eastland and Biden. Based on one ear-witness account of the slaying: “A journalist writing under the pseudonym “Amos Dixon” reconstructed the scene inside the Sturdivant barn: “Emmett fell to the floor, still crying and begging. Their frenzy increased. The blows fell faster. The frenzy mounted higher. The killers kicked and beat their victim. Finally, the cries died down to a moan and then ceased.”

Another ear-witness reported that as his kidnappers broke his skull into shards with military grade pistols and stabbed his face the boy cried out: “Lord have mercy, mama save me.”

What was James Eastland’s response to his constituents bludgeoning a fourteen year old boy and bashing his eye out with farm tools as the victim begged for his mother? 

Eastland used his influence to obtain and publicize the military record of Louis Till, Emmett’s father, who had been executed by the U.S. Army in Italy when his son was four years old. Louis’s alleged crime was the rape of Italian women. It is not my business to adjudicate the case here, but, historians have since questioned the veracity of the charges and Louis’s then wife Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, expressed her feeling that he had been persecuted for consensual conjugal relations with European women. I say it is not my business to adjudicate, because if Louis Till had raped every woman from Rome to Milan, it would have been no more a defense of his child’s murder than a whistle was.

I mentioned above that Doddsville, Eastland’s home, was 20 miles from the site of this murder he sought to excuse. Doddsville and Money, Mississippi are in the Mississippi Delta, home to some of the primest cotton land in the world. Roy Bryant, leader of the lynching party and the husband of Carolyn Bryant, who’d reported the alleged incident for which Till was butchered, came from a large family that owned a chain of plantation general stores dotting that area of the Delta, where they sold goods to Black sharecroppers. Early in his career, Eastland earned the sobriquet “Cottonseed Jim,” for his tireless advocacy on behalf of Mississippi’s cotton farmers. Cotton farmers in this area of Mississippi knew they could call on him any time day or night, literally. Once, when a young cotton farmer had trouble selling his crop, he was able to get Eastland on the phone in a half hour, Eastland then arranged to have the man meet a cotton broker who could fix his problem, the very next morning.

When Till was abducted, the Senate had been out of session since August, 2, 1955. The incident for which the murder was committed occurred on the 24th and the murder happened in the early morning of the 28th. In the interim, the supposed offense leading to the murder had become general public knowledge, and Bryant and others traveled around the White community building consensus. Since the senate was out of session, Eastland was probably at home on his plantation. Though I can’t prove it, it seems highly plausible that Eastland would have been aware of the uproar preceding the murder. Circumstantial evidence: Eastland’s grassroots philosophy of constituent work, the Bryant family’s mercantile relationship with the local planter class, that Eastland was a planter himself, point provocatively to the possibility that Eastland knew the murder was planned and may have even given it his blessing.

Again, this is highly speculative, but even if my speculation is false, Eastland certainly thought it was his business to become a political accessory after the fact by digging up dirt on the family of a murdered child. Eastland certainly would not have been the first prominent southern politician to bless a lynching. Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia is now believed to have helped facilitate a brutal mass lynching in Moore’s Ford, Georgia to drum up support for his reelection campaign, examples of this sort resound through the history of White Southern terrorism.

To call James Eastland merely a segregationist is to euphemize what he was, not because it is not a horrible thing to be a segregationist, but because segregation was only ever a means to an end: White supremacy. Whites wanted Blacks not only separate, but beneath them. To achieve this they resorted to terrorism, which is why Eastland sought to dampen the public outcry around this vicious slaying. The Mississippi delta was predominantly Black, Eastland’s vast estate relied on the brutalized labor of Black workers for profitability. To keep the majority of the population doing backbreaking work for starvation wages, they had to fear White terrorism from the bottom of their souls. This was the work to which Emmett Till’s murderers were committing themselves and which James Eastland defended.

I must make myself clear, Joe Biden is not implicated in this directly, he was thirteen years old in 1955. He came along after Eastland’s war was all but lost, after the Civil and Voting Rights acts had been forced through the senate over the White south’s violent objection. Biden comes on the scene when the war had largely moved north, when Black parents in northern cities sought to place their children in schools that had been funded and designed to elevate pupils, not solidify an underclass. The battered warrior for White supremacy found in young Biden a common cause. Fortune had turned against his own stronghold, but far-flung northern citadels with fighters like Biden presented hope.

There are only 100 United States senators at a time. To demonize every senator who ever found common cause with White supremacists would effectively eliminate every senator with any seniority. If Biden had allied with Eastland to secure farm subsidies, I wouldn’t begrudge him that. But Biden and Eastland came together to keep Black children locked securely in the ghettos, where they were meant to die.

Therefore, as far as my opinion matters to anyone else, so long as I hold a free ballot, I will never cast it to put Joe Biden in the White House. Trump is a menace, but I will not be cowed into voting for his ideological near-kin. Biden’s world is one in which White men in suits sat around smoke-filled rooms and made gentlemen’s agreements over rivers of our blood.

I will not pretend that I was ever planning to vote for Joe Biden in the primary, that was never going to happen. I knew he had good relationships with segregationists, but, I might have still held my nose and voted for him in the general election to keep Donald Trump out of office. It’s hard to explain why my opposition has become so definitive. I knew the senators Biden befriended were aiders and abettors of terrorism. As a student of the war between White supremacy and justice, I have a keen sense of what that means. Perhaps it is the specificity of seeing Biden allied with the ally of some of the most notorious beasts ever to serve White power. If Biden had allied with someone who’d defended ISIS fighters for torturing a child to death and throwing his body into the ocean, there would be no question of letting him anywhere near the White House. Similar reaction is warranted here, for all that it symbolizes about Biden’s other alliances with White supremacy (See: The 1994 Crime Bill) and what it really means to have allied with powerful White supremacists.



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