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Emmett Till and empathy: Reflections on my visit to the African-American History Museum

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March 29, 2022

“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” – Mamie Till-Mobley​

Wrapped in a bronze-colored metal lattice, with a structure fashioned after the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture covers 5 acres on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This Smithsonian museum opened to the public on September 24, 2016, 87 years after Congress approved the project.

I was able to visit the museum with some colleagues on a brisk Saturday afternoon in 2018 after a pro-life event that our team hosted in our nation’s capital. Our event had fittingly focused on the dignity, value, and worth of all people as rooted in the imago Dei (Gen. 1:26-28). The visit to the museum left me speechless. From the intricate design and architectural features to the uplifting yet horrifying stories on display, the museum seeks to “tell the American story through the African-American lens.” And it does so in a powerful and thought-provoking way.

Through another’s eyes

The museum tour begins by taking an elevator deep underground as you descend back in time to the 15th century and the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. Each level of the three-floor main exhibit chronicles various historical periods in the Americas through the eyes of African-Americans. The bottom level tells the story of how slavery developed from a temporary status not based on skin color, to an industry that ravaged African kingdoms and fueled growth in the Americas at the expense of human dignity. The middle level focuses on the Jim Crow South up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lastly, the top level tells the story of the 1970s through the present.

Through the various exhibits and displays, I learned about the beautiful kingdoms that used to sprawl the African continent and saw their breathtaking contributions to art. I learned how these kingdoms were depleted of their people because an estimated 10–12 million Africans were exported like common goods on slave ships to the Americas.

Multiple displays told the personal stories of enslaved Africans aboard slave ships. As we journeyed through exhibits of old metal shackles and various wooden parts of slaves ships, I was able to better understand the horrors of travel conditions that these men and women were subjected to as they crossed the Atlantic ocean.

While the exhibits and stories gripped my heart, the most influential moment of the entire museum was watching an African-American father tell his two daughters that this was their history and that their ancestors lived through these horrors. He explained to his girls how the Emancipation Proclamation made by President Lincoln freed the slaves in the South. He told them that many slaves found out they were free as the Union army marched through the South, carrying with them tiny versions of proclamation that they would read aloud as they entered plantations and fields. So much of this history was unfamiliar to me.

The horrible truth revealed

On the second level, there is a small room tucked away in a corner; a quiet and quaint room. It is the only place in the entire museum that you are not allowed to take photos. There is a security guard posted just outside the room to gently but sternly remind you of this and encourage respectful silence. This room contains the original casket of a 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in 1955.

Newspaper clippings tell the story of Emmett Till, who was visiting relatives near Money, Mississippi. Till and his family were from Chicago but had been traveling to see family when Till stopped in at a local grocery store. While in the store, a 21-year-old married woman named Carolyn Bryant claimed that Till flirted with her. Upon hearing about this incident, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother abducted the boy from his great-uncle’s home and brutally murdered him. They beat, mutilated, and shot him. Then they proceeded to tie a 75-pound weight around his neck and throw his body into the Tallahatchie River. Mrs. Bryant recanted her story decades later.

More powerful than our common citizenship in America is our connection as human beings created equally in the image of God.

Mamie Till-Mobley, the boy’s mother, decided to hold his funeral in Chicago with an open casket. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said. Emmett Till posthumously became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement as numerous newspaper and magazine stories helped millions to see the crime that was committed against this boy; a crime based largely on the color of his skin.

The museum was given the original casket to put on display after Till-Mobley had her son’s remains unearthed for DNA analysis. Her desire was for the world to remember, through experiencing the exhibit, what was done to “her baby.” She wanted others to see what happened because, through seeing what really took place, she believed that it would move people to action. They would have no excuse if they allowed these horrors to continue.

A knowledge leading to empathy

As I reflect on my time touring this museum, I am struck by my own ignorance of the rich history of African-Americans and the stories of these brave Americans. These men and women are integral parts of the American story. Just as Mamie Till-Mobley hoped that her son would serve as a visible reminder of the horrors of Jim Crow laws, this museum serves as a visible reminder of all that African-Americans have suffered and achieved in their rich history. It is through knowledge and understanding that we are able to develop empathy for one another.

More powerful than our common citizenship in America is our connection as human beings created equally in the image of God. This common humanity is shared by all people from every nation, tribe, and tongue and gives us inherent worth and dignity. We were created equal by God, even if others sinfully deny this truth. And this equality is what drives our empathy.

The stories on display at this museum opened my eyes to the horrors that my brothers and sisters have endured and helped me grow in empathy as I learned about our American history through an African-American lens. If you are in Washington D.C., I highly encourage you to visit the museum so that you might learn and grow in love for one another.

Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as a research fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. He is the author or editor of several books including The Age of AI, Following Jesus in a Digital Age, and The Digital Public Square. In addition to his … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24