“Why am I repeating this story in such detail? Because white people have fear of Black folks. We do. Even when we don’t want to.”
By Ellen Morris Prewitt
The two young men had been high school friends. One was Black, one was white. The Black man went missing. He had last been seen with the young white man, his friend. The white man schemed with his half-brother to shoot the young Black man and rob him. The brothers buried the Black man in a shallow grave, and the white man’s wife allegedly later tried to help remove blood from the car to cover up the murder.
Later, in a post-Miranda confession, the white man admitted that his half-brother shot the young man in his car.
When the town began to hear that police suspected locals in the crime, everyone was shocked, Black and white. They all knew each other in this small town – surely an outsider had committed the murder? While the suspected killers were still at large, before the body had been found, the Black community scheduled a candlelight prayer vigil for the missing man.
How did the white people of the small Mississippi town react? They ruined the prayer vigil. They fear-mongered until racist militia roared into town. “We can’t just enjoy a peaceful community gathering because we gotta worry about is someone going to do something crazy, or if the police are going to react out of fear,” [the man’s cousin] said.
“They lied and claimed the town needed defending from ‘these criminals.’ . . . They used Facebook – the Devil’s Toolkit – to spread wild rumors.”
The Black man was the victim. He was a robbery victim and a homicide victim. Yet, the town turned the possible murder of one of its citizens by his white friend into an extravagance of white fear.
The originator of the fear-mongering was a group on Facebook – the Devil’s Toolkit – called the Mississippi Minute Men Militia. The group lied about the hurricane shutters on the police department to claim ‘they boarded up the police department.’ They lied and said the US Marshals were on their way. They lied and claimed the town needed defending from ‘these criminals.’
Users on Facebook — the Devil’s Toolkit — shared the post as if it had originated with them, making it look like they had actual personal knowledge of impending doom. They used Facebook — the Devil’s Toolkit — to spread wild rumors. Antifa and BLM are coming to attack the town! Outside agitators are being bused in! They’re coming from Houston (a city where many Black folks evacuated following Hurricane Katrina)! The posters insisted they needed to ‘protect our town.’ The only source of the rumors was, you got it, the Devil’s Toolkit.
“A local white pastor said ‘See, nobody ever goes back and says, I was wrong, please forgive me, we were wrong. Nobody ever does that. They just go on to the next rumor.'”
Why would the white community react this way?
Because in the context of white and Black, white people cannot stand to be wrong. Could it be the white people here cannot stand for the Black community to be the victim of any white person’s violence because that makes the white people wrong (see the prior statement)? That if white people are, in fact, in the wrong, and one of their own violated the norms of the town and killed a friend, they must lie and claim they are about to become the victims, and thus (thank you, Jesus!) are in the right again? That, if necessary, they must create a situation where violence erupts so they can blame the Black folks?
Always it seems, the white people must re-center the conversation on themselves, ‘their’ town, ‘their’ businesses, ‘their’ safety, ‘their’ superiority. Even when one of the town’s own was tragically missing.
Not every white person participated in the fear-mongering. A tax preparer had this to say afterwards: “The white community in this community has an addiction to hate and fear & we just made a mistake,” he wrote on July 16. “… WE, white people, used social media to promote so much fear that ON THEIR WAY TO A PRAYER VIGIL AN INNOCENT, GRIEVING BLACK COMMUNITY GOT TO DRIVE PAST A RIDICULOUSLY LARGE GROUP OF OUR GOOD OLE BOYS SITTING IN THEIR TRUCKS WITH THEIR GUNS LOADED, GOD ON THEIR SIDE & FEAR AND ANGER IN THEIR HEARTS.”
A local white pastor also pushed back on the hurricane of fear the white people in town had ginned up. “How many lies are you gonna believe and send off down the line before you realize, Satan is just trying to get us?” he asked. “See, nobody ever goes back and says, I was wrong, please forgive me, we were wrong. Nobody ever does that. They just go on to the next rumor.”
There were probably other white folk who didn’t participate (see, I’ve taken care of the ‘not all white people’ claim.) But enough white people thought the most important thing was their white fear that they ruined a prayer vigil designed to comfort the frightened family.
“What I’m saying: look at your white folks. What do you see?”
Why am I repeating this story in such detail? Because white people have fear of Black folks. We do. Even when we don’t want to, we do. Some of us are extremely lucky and have escaped this contagion, but for the most part, if you’re white, that fear is gonna well up in you sooner or later. When that happens, you must do one thing: Examine. You. Must. Examine. It. You must pause and say to yourself, this is me as a white person being afraid of a Black person.
Do the rumors play into stereotypes? Are the “outside agitators” being “bused” in from [fill in blank for known Black city/neighborhood]?
Does the rumor use typical rumor strategy (“my friend’s cousin’s wife is a state trooper and she told him”)?
Do the rumors rely on what is the current worst white fear (burning down white businesses, carjacking white babies, raping white women—the list is fairly static but some bob to the surface while others recede)?
Who is spreading the rumors? Is it a group that has a vested interest in the rumor (what are men’s militia’s going to do with their little selves if no one is threatening their white way of life? How are they going to feel pumped up and big if they don’t have fake crises to handle with their guns? How can they feel important if they can’t make Black folk into threats?)
How are white people responding to the rumor? Are they enjoying fanning the flames? Do they want to believe in the dangerousness of Black folks? Are the rumors a racist’s ‘too good to be true’?
What I’m saying: look at your white folks. What do you see? Are your white people playing white people games? If so, it’s white people ego, not truth. And nothing is more dangerous than white people’s ego. It will get you killed.
Originally published by Ellen Morris Prewitt on her blog. Published in StoryBoard Memphis with permission from and in collaboration with Ellen Morris Prewitt
“My life has been shaped by two very early events: I was born into the racism of the civil rights American South, and I carry the grief of my daddy being killed by a train. Maybe these two events shaped my deep desire to use creativity to build connection and community.” ~Ellen Morris Prewitt
Find out more about Ellen Morris Prewitt and contact her here on her website.