Had it not been for the brutal, racist murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American, he would have celebrated his 75th birthday on July 25.
While visiting relatives in Money, Miss., Till was killed for allegedly flirting with a white woman, a Southern taboo. Born and raised in Chicago, he was unaccustomed to the state-sanctioned violence and legalized Jim Crow racial segregation in the South.
On Aug. 24, 1955, Till and his cousins were outside a store in Money. When Till entered, the only person inside was Carolyn Bryant, the owner’s spouse. She claimed that Till “made lewd advances and then wolf-whistled at her.” Others on the scene refuted this allegation. (history.com)
When her spouse, Roy Bryant, heard about the alleged incident, he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to the home of Till’s great uncle, Mose Wright, in the middle of the night on Aug. 28. They kidnapped the teenager and made him carry a 75-pound cotton gin fan to the Tallahatchie River. They brutally beat him, gouged out an eye, and then shot him in the head. They threw his body in the river, with barbed wire tied to the fan and around his neck.
Till’s disfigured corpse was found three days later. He was identified by his father’s ring on his finger that his mother had given him.
World outrage at Till’s murder
Mississippi authorities wanted to bury Till’s body immediately, but his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, fought to have his body returned to Chicago. After seeing her son’s mutilated remains, she decided to have an open-casket funeral so that the world could see what racist murderers had done to her only child. Jet magazine and the Chicago Daily Defender published photographs of Till’s body, outraging people everywhere.
Milam and Bryant were tried in a segregated courthouse. Wright identified them. On Sept. 23, 1955, the all-white jury deliberated for less than an hour and reached a “not guilty” verdict. The state did not indict them for kidnapping.
Demonstrations protested the verdict in major U.S. cities and Paris. Mississippi was seen as the epitome of racism and stronghold of white supremacy.
This murder trial revealed the brutality of Jim Crow racism and was an impetus for the Civil Rights Movement. It was also a reason for passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1957, allowing the Justice Department to intervene in local law enforcement issues when civil rights are compromised.
When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, she said she “thought of Emmett Till and just couldn’t go back.”
Milam and Bryant admitted to Look magazine in 1956 that they killed Till. They had no remorse.
Mamie Till-Mobley wrote in “The Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America”: “When it comes to lynching, it is not just the actual killers who’re guilty. It’s the dominant culture, the entire society that permits such a thing, that encourages it. Bryant and Milam weren’t the only guilty parties in the lynching of my son. Witnesses have pointed to at least six or seven people. But … there were so many thousands more. People who were responsible, powerful, influential. People who could’ve come clean and chose instead to live the rest of their lives with blood on their hands.” Random House published the book soon after Till-Mobley’s death at 81 in 2003.
It took until 2007 for Tallahatchie County to issue a formal apology to the Till family.
Fifty-nine years after Till’s murder, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by a white police officer while playing alone with a pellet gun in a Cleveland park on Nov. 22, 2014. He would have been 14 on June 25.
A grand jury declined to indict the cop who murdered Rice — like the majority of cases today when police are not prosecuted for fatally shooting African Americans.
‘Sons of the Great Migration’
Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” writes that Till and Rice are “both tragic symbols of the search for Black freedom” and “sons of the Great Migration, those who defected from the Cotton Belt in the South. They could not know what was in store for them or their descendants, nor the hostilities they would face wherever they went. The horrors they were fleeing would follow them in freedom and into the current day.” (New York Times, Feb. 12)
Till’s mother’s family migrated from Mississippi to Chicago in the early 1920s. Rice’s great-grandmother, Millie Lee Wylie, left Sumter County, Ala., and settled in Cleveland.
Rice’s great uncle, Michael Petty, told Wilkerson that the killing of her great-grandson, in the place she traveled so far to reach, would have crushed his mother: “My mother would’ve carried the hurt and felt the pain of the generations.”
“Our current era seems oddly aligned with that moment,” asserts Wilkerson. “The brutal decades preceding the Great Migration were when a Black person was lynched on average every four days. Today … an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every 3 1/2 days.”
Wilkerson adds, “What befell Emmett and Tamir reflects how racial interactions have mutated over time, from the overt hatred to the unspoken, unconscious biases that are no less lethal. … For all of its changes, the country remains in a similar place, a caste system based on what people look like.”
Wilkerson asks, “What is to be the role of the people whom the country has marginalized by law and custom and with state-sanctioned violence? … [T]hese now 45 million people [are] still the most segregated of all groups [in the U.S.] … How can deeply embedded racial hierarchies be overcome?”
The racial backlash continues against advances made by African Americans, and so does discrimination in all spheres — education, employment, housing and health care. Racial disparities are rife throughout the U.S. criminal justice system.
In 1955, a Black child wasn’t safe from violent hatred and death, nor is a Black child safe in 2016. Their tragic fates are determined by their skin color.