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Monday, March 26, 2012

Linking the deaths of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin: meaningful or misleading?

For some pundits and commentators, the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida has evoked memories of the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi a half-century ago.

Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 shot to national attention when his mother dramatically decided that her son’s funeral should be open casket. Three days after he was taken by two men from his uncle’s home in the middle of the night, Till’s bloated naked body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, a seventy-pound cotton-gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. He had been shot in the head, his nose broken and one eye gouged out. The local sheriff wanted to bury the decomposing body immediately, but Till’s mother insisted the corpse be shipped home to Chicago. To let “the world see what they did to my boy,” Mamie Till delayed burial four days so that some fifty thousand mourners could view the body. She also permitted Jet magazine to share photographs of the corpse with its millions of readers.

In a Jackson, Mississippi, dateline for The Cleveland Call and Post, Marty Richardson reported what occurred on the Tuesday following the funeral:
In what is perhaps the shortest time on record in this state in a case where the victim was a Negro, two white men were indicted on Tuesday for the lynch-slaying of 14-year-old Emmett Till last Sunday. . . . The unprecedentedly swift indictments followed a wave of national outrage which reached a climax Sunday when funeral services were held for the boy in Chicago, his home. He had been in Mississippi visiting relatives.
The Till trial would not have happened but for acts of personal heroism, as Murray Kempton captured in The New York Post in recounting the testimony of one key witness:
Mose Wright, making a formation no white man in his county really believed he would dare to make, stood on his tiptoes to the full limit of his sixty-four years and his five feet three inches yesterday, pointed his black, workworn fingers straight at the huge and stormy head of J. W. Milam and swore that this was the man who dragged fourteen-year-old Emmett Louis Till out of his cottonfield cabin the night the boy was murdered. . . . If it had not been for him, we would not have had this trial.
In “Justice in Sumner,” his account of the trial for The Nation, Dan Wakefield wrote that many of the local residents wondered why everyone was making “a mountain out of a molehill;” they considered the trial a “threat to the racial traditions of the South, and storekeepers set out jars on their counters for contributions to aid the defense of the accused murderers.”

The weeklong trial ended when the all-white jury took one hour and seven minutes to decide that the two men charged with murdering Till were not guilty. Two subsequent grand juries failed to indict the men for kidnapping. Journalist William Bradford Huie later paid the two defendants between $3,600 and $4,000 for their account of the crime. Protected by double jeopardy, they confessed to the kidnapping and murder in a chilling account published in Look magazine in January 1956.

On her MSNBC talk show Tulane professor Melissa Harris-Perry recalled the murder of Emmett Till when she discussed the shooting of Trayvon Martin:
When we hear Trayvon Martin’s screams we are reminded that we have been here before . . . In the summer of 1955 the entire nation bore witness thanks to one devastated mother who offered up her personal and private grief for public and political scrutiny and launched a movement. Mamie Till Mobley allowed Jet magazine to publish the photos of the brutalized body of her son Emmett Till. He was tortured and killed by a group of Southern vigilantes for allegedly whistling at a white woman, which is no more a crime than walking home in the rain with a bag of candy. Her courageous choice sparked an activist response that would ultimately give life to the contemporary civil rights movement. I thought of her this week as I watched tens of thousands of hooded supporters rally around the parents of Trayvon Martin in Florida and in New York’s Union Square.
Earlier last week in the Washington Post, columnist Eugene Robinson cautioned about linking the two cases:
Some commentators have sought to liken Martin’s killing to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, an unspeakable crime that helped galvanize the civil rights movement. To make a facile comparison is a disservice to history—and to the memory of both young men. It is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.

When Till was killed in Mississippi at 14—accused of flirting with a white woman—this was a different country. State-sanctioned terrorism and assassination were official policy throughout the South. Today, the laws and institutions that enforced Jim Crow repression have long since been dismantled. Mississippi, of all places, has more black elected officials than any other state. An African American family lives in the White House.

Black America was never a monolith, but over the past five decades it has become much more diverse — economically, socially, culturally. If you stood on a street corner and chose five black men at random, you might meet a doctor who lives in the high-priced suburbs, an immigrant from Ethiopia who drives a cab, a young aspiring filmmaker with flowing dreadlocks, an unemployed dropout trying to hustle his next meal and a midlevel government worker struggling to put his kids through college.

Those men would have nothing in common, really, except one thing: For each of them, walking down the wrong street at the wrong time could be a fatal mistake.
John Blake closes “Trayvon’s Death: Echoes of Emmett Till?” a report on the CNN website, by noting Rosa Parks’s response when she was asked why she didn't give up her seat on the bus in December 1955 when she was threatened with arrest if she refused. She said she thought about Emmett Till and couldn’t go back anymore. Will the death of Trayvon Martin inspire the same kind of resolve?

Also of interest:

Related LOA works: Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 (includes articles about the Till murder by Marty Richardson, Murray Kempton, Dan Wakefield, and William Bradford Huie’s account of his interview with the two murderers)


  1. Hello, could I ask you to please correct the typo in the Till/Trayvon Martin post. That should be Marty Richardson, not Mary. [His full name was Matin Daniel Richardson.]

    For myself, and on behalf of my late uncle Marty, I thank you.

    - Marilyn Richardson

  2. Dear Ms. Richardson: We apologize for the error and it has (of course!) been fixed.


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