I recently read The Blood of Emmett Till, an extraordinary book by North Carolina author and historian Tim Tyson. The book recounts the horrendous torture and murder of a black teenager in 1950’s Mississippi following false accusations* from a white woman store clerk. Till’s murder and the acquittal of the men responsible sparked an outcry that grew into the1960s Civil Rights Movement. In the years that followed, this non-violent resistance to Jim Crow laws resulted in its own saints and martyrs: Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, murdered Civil Rights activists and Black Americans and others like present-day Congressman John Lewis who were viciously beaten and injured.
The word “Saint,” apart from its religious definition, implies a range of deeds by men or women whom we think of as kindly and good to those who have sacrificed for others, sometimes with their lives. The term “martyr” is quite clear: a person who dies for a cause or belief. Typically, that death isn’t chosen but results from a decision to speak out, stand for a cause or against an injustice. Heather Heyer, protesting Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan in Charlottesville recently, did not expect to die there, although she chose to join the protest because of her sympathy with its purpose.
In A Stone for Bread, protagonist Henry Beam finds himself on a path toward corruption and violence (See Part 4). This changes when he encounters an enigmatic man named René who steps between an angry Henry and a brawling rioter before Henry can brutally club and possibly kill the man. Following this encounter, Henry is slowly drawn into René’s story, that of a man who has spent much of his life tormented by a dreadful secret: how as a small child, he had inadvertently caused the death of his brother. The secret follows René through years of despair and failure so that when he is imprisoned at the horrific Mauthausen concentration camp during World War II, he considers this to be just, even though he is innocent of the charges against him.
Yet at Mauthausen, as a man who believes he deserves to die, René lives, surviving to tell his story years later to Henry Beam. And because he had expected to die and was therefore unconcerned for his own survival, René finds himself, in surprising ways, able to help save the lives of other prisoners. “Like a saint,” Henry describes him in the novel. “If such exists in this world, I will always believe René to be first among them.”
Like René, many of our saints and martyrs never intended or even wished to be considered such. Yet their lives have resonated in significant ways well beyond their deaths.
*from The Blood of Emmett Till, as recounted to Tyson years afterwards by the store clerk Carolyn Bryant.