Two new movies, ‘Till’ and ‘U.S. and the Holocaust,’ help us connect the dots between Jim Crow and fascism
With Kanye and Kyrie Irving dominating the news, the connections between victims of white supremacy are more relevant than ever
In 1937, as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American covering the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe, the poet Langston Hughes made an astute observation. Fascism, Hughes concluded, was essentially Jim Crow with a foreign accent.
“We Negroes in America do not have to be told what Fascism is in action,” Hughes said before a gathering of the Second International Writers Conference. “We know. Its theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been realities to us.”
This bit of symmetry too often goes ignored in examinations of this period of American history and its harrowing modern parallels. But two recently released films, Till and The U.S. and the Holocaust, help us see how Emmett Till and Anne Frank, children whose lives were famously cut short at age 14, were both victims of the same pernicious and violent ideology of white supremacy.
Till, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, is a narrative film starring Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Bradley and Jalyn Hall as her beloved only son Emmett, whom Mamie refers to by his nickname, Bo. Mamie, a successful woman who sends her son South to visit his Mississippi relatives, is the audience surrogate, and so we experience the events of the summer of 1954 through her perspective.
The U.S. and the Holocaust, directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, is a six-hour documentary, available on PBS, that illustrates how America’s initial inaction, spurred by widespread antisemitism, condemned millions of European Jews to death, an ugly fact often ignored in the telling of the Allied victory over the Axis powers. The filmmakers use the story of Anne Frank and her family, hiding from the Nazis in the Netherlands after they were turned away from refuge in the United States, as a high-profile example of why many European Jews died, unable to escape Nazi occupation when safer nations refused to take them in. Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus in the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in 1945, just weeks before it was liberated. Her father, Otto, was the only member of his family to survive the war.
Both Till and the U.S. and the Holocaust are structured around stories of victims who ascended to the status of historical avatars. Viewed together it becomes clear: Jim Crow killed Emmett Till. And Jim Crow with a foreign accent killed Anne Frank.
Part of the reason the stories of Emmett and Anne endure is because of the universal recognition of the innocence of children. This is one of the elements Chukwu captures with heartrending delicacy as she follows Mamie throughout the course of Till. Living in Chicago, Mamie raises a charismatic teen who who is largely free and unafraid, whose back has not been broken by a racist social order. Emmett is more than the barbarism he endured. He’s sweet, clever Bo, whose laughter and mischief filled his mother’s house and heart.
But Chukwu also illustrates, with a quiet power, the terrorism that reverberates from Emmett’s slaying at the hands of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the two white men who admitted to kidnapping, torturing, and killing Till in a magazine interview after they were acquitted by an all-white jury. Portraying Emmett’s open-casket funeral in Chicago, Chukwu starts with the camera following the face of each mourner who has come to gaze upon Emmett’s swollen, disfigured countenance. The camera pulls away to reveal a church full of people, all focused on Emmett’s casket. In that moment, he is the center of this particular universe. And no one in this universe is safe. The terror spreads throughout Mississippi and up the river that shares its name all the way to a Chicago sanctuary.
Anne’s innocence endures in one of the most memorable quotations of her bestselling diary: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” In The U.S. and the Holocaust, those who knew her and survived suggest that Anne likely would not have written that line had she been able to record her thoughts while imprisoned at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Projects such as Till and The U.S. and the Holocaust, however rigorous, struggle to compete with the current pop culture discourse led by a few massively famous men bent on painting Jews not just as global puppet masters, but as opponents of the project of Black liberation. It is strange to witness rapper Kanye West or Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving truck in lies and antisemitic stereotypes aimed at driving a wedge between two communities that have long worked together in the pursuit of racial justice to the point of sacrificing their lives to do so. On a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, Dave Chappelle seemed to delight in tweaking the more ridiculous behavior and pronouncements of Irving and West, all the while winking at the antisemitic tropes they espoused, tropes that are used to justify violence against Jews.
It was a worrisome indulgence in comedic cuteness when many anxiously wonder which lie will be the one that leads to the slaying of Jews. This is not a worry that lives only in the past. The most deadly attack against Jews in the United States took place in 2018, at a Pittsburgh house of worship. As Tal Lavin wrote recently for Business Insider, “When someone with a big platform says the things that have led to mass slaughter of a people within living memory, it gives permission, it turns up the heat on the perpetual simmer of prejudice, and it builds hate’s strength.”
The relationship between Jewish people and Black people is not zero-sum (some of us are both) as Irving and West might have us believe. Rather, our fates are and have been bound up in one another’s. Neither group is seen as equal or fully human in the eyes of white supremacy.
Uniting many Jews and African Americans is a shared intimacy with the barbarism of targeted torture, killing, rape and denial of civil liberties on the basis of ethnicity, race, or religion. Jews understood that the night riders of the Ku Klux Klan were executing pogroms against Black people in the American South because they had experienced them, too – and not just in Europe. During a financial depression in the 1890s, organized night riders in Mississippi and Louisiana targeted Jews and attacked businesses, scholar Nell Irvin Painter chronicles in The History of White People. The dynamics that took Emmett’s life and acquitted his captors had much in common with efforts to round up Jews and ship them off to slave labor and death camps.
As with the epidemic of lynching, rape and kidnapping of Black women, it was the Black press that connected Adolf Hitler’s campaign of genocide against Jews with white supremacy long before their mainstream white counterparts were willing to articulate the same in print.
“… for the most part, white southern newspaper editorials condemned Nazi racism but refused to acknowledge the obvious similarities between the German racial system and that of the South in the 1930s,” Johnpeter Horst Grill and Robert L. Jenkins wrote in The Journal of Southern History. “On the other hand, to the chagrin of liberal southern editors, black newspapers made comparisons between German and southern racism as early as 1933 and continued to do so consistently thereafter. Understandably, the black press often referred to the hypocrisy inherent in the anti-Nazi rhetoric of the region and its practices toward blacks.”
This understanding was documented not just during the second World War, but immediately after the first as well, as in this example from The Chicago Defender in 1919:
American Yiddish newspapers of the time also recognized that antisemitism and anti-Black racism were two sides of the same white supremacist coin. When the Yiddish press covered the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, it contextualized the attack as a pogrom. “The Yiddish press routinely reacted to race riots with editorial outrage and passionate headlines,” wrote Uri Schreter for the Jewish Studies journal In geveb. “Moreover, Yiddish journalists often described anti-Black violence with metaphors and idioms borrowed from Eastern European Jewish life. Using terms like ‘pogroms,’ ‘blood libels,’ and ‘Cossacks,’ they articulated a special kinship between Jews and Black people that hinged on a belief in shared suffering.”
During the Freedom Summer of 1964, two Jewish civil rights activists, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Mickey Schwerner, 24, were murdered, along with Congress of Racial Equality worker James Chaney, 21, for attempting to register Black voters in Mississippi. They were the children of American Jews who witnessed the violent bigotry toward Jews during the Holocaust, people who learned never to feel too safe, even in countries they thought of as their homes. They knew that the world took far too long to stop an attack on an entire people that wiped out two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe.
Schwerner was about the same age as Emmett when Bryant, Milam and the men who helped them kidnapped the boy from his uncle’s home in Mississippi and defiled his body before tossing him in the Tallahatchie River. Goodman was 10.
The terror of this act didn’t just spread through Black America. It spread through Jewish America, too. In the PBS documentary American Experience: 1964, civil rights freedom fighter David Dennis Sr. (the father of my colleague, David Dennis Jr., and co-author of The Movement Made Us: A Father, a Son, and the Legacy of a Freedom Ride) shares an exchange he had with Schwerner that summer. Dennis said Schwerner told him, “ ‘Sometimes when I’m here and I’m with the people, I don’t know whether I’m Black or white.’ And I sorta laughed it off and told him, ‘You white.’ I wasn’t understanding at that time what he probably meant. I wish I had a deeper conversation with him about that point. ’Cause he didn’t laugh.”
Schwerner understood what it meant to be part of a group that was reviled and targeted for violence. And yet, because he and Goodman were understood to be white, a search was conducted for their bodies after they went missing, something not regularly afforded to Black victims of white supremacist violence. That search led to the discovery of multiple corpses of Black people who had been lynched and dumped under Mississippi’s regime of anti-Black fascism.
(The privileges of Jewish conditional whiteness in the South is depicted with rich elegance in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 2003 musical Caroline, or Change, which sits at the cross-section of two people’s lives: Caroline, a 39-year-old Black maid working for a white Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana and Noah Gellman, the 8-year-old boy who learns the power he wields over this grown woman he adores, merely because of his whiteness. The musical had a recent revival on Broadway last year.)
Both Jim Crow and the Final Solution relied on systemized governmental oppression and societal blindness, a mass unwillingness to acknowledge the truth of what was taking place and mobilize to stop it. As Black people in the post-Reconstruction South were being terrorized by the Klan, their government turned a blind eye. As Hitler’s campaign to wipe out the Jews of Europe turned into an assembly line of death, the U.S. government failed to prioritize action that would disrupt the death camps. At the root of both was white supremacy, the ideology that Mamie Till Bradley and Otto Frank continued to fight as they kept the memories of their children alive.
“We cannot change what happened anymore,” Frank said in 1970. “The only thing we can do is to learn from the past and to realize what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means. I believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility to fight prejudice.” Till concludes with a re-creation of Till Bradley speaking before a group assembled by the NAACP in Cleveland in 1955. “The lynching of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
They learned a lesson that many have forgotten. Whether it goes by the name of fascism, or white supremacy, or white Christian nationalism matters not. What matters is fighting and defeating it together, before it debases us all.
The Ephemeral Langston Hughes, University of Delaware exhibition
How American Racism Influenced Hitler by Alex Ross
The Nazis and the American South in the 1930s: A Mirror Image? by Johnpeter Horst Grill and Robert L. Jenkins
Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Whitman
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
Langston Hughes papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University
Reporting on the Holocaust: the view from Jim Crow Alabama by Dan J. Puckett
In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 by Hasia R. Diner