By Kai EL’ Zabar
It was 1955 in Money, Mississippi, while visiting family where 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicago native, was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. His assailants–the white
Most people are aware of this ugly episode in American history. If not, then take time to research the case that benchmarked how Blacks deal with issues of extreme racism. Note that Till’s death came a year after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation in education. For the first time, Blacks had the law on their side in the struggle for equality. Till’s killing resonated across the nation. White people in the North were as shocked as Blacks at the barbaric, inhumane cruelty of the killing. The national media picked up on the story and the case mobilized the NAACP, which provided a safe house for witnesses during the trial of the murderers. Unfortunately, Till’s murder was only one of thousands of similar murders in the South and though his name is not as well-known as it should be, his case was an important turning point in America’s civil rights struggle.
The mistreatment and total disregard for Black life demonstrated by Till’s murder is not too different from what Blacks witness today, considering the mounting number of deaths of young Black men in America at the hands of white police officers who technically are hired to serve and protect. So the question becomes–who are they serving and what are they protecting?
In the case of Emmett Till, the racist husband Roy Bryant and accomplice, J.W. Milam, needed no excuse, but found refuge in the idea of protecting Carolyn Bryant’s honor. At that time, a Black man in the south was taught not to look at a white woman let alone say something to her. And though Till did not grow up in the south, Chicago had its own brand of racism, so it’s hard to accept the corroborated accounting Mrs. Bryant provided–-stating that a 14-year old Emmett Till was aggressive to the point “that he grabbed her, made lewd advances and then wolf-whistled at her as he sauntered out.” Further it is also alleged that his associates dared him to ask the white woman for a date not thinking that he would. Honestly, it’s hard to swallow, when referencing the time. Blacks know that the behavior of young men was not the same as it is today. There was a decorum about them that goes against the picture that Mrs. Bryant painted for her husband.
In addition, the admittance of Scott Shepherd, a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee, who grew up knowing Mrs. Bryant’s family and testified in 2004 that his parents had stated what most of the rural folks in Money knew—that the ex-beauty queen often flirted with young men both white and Black alike. So she, in fact, could have evoked Till’s behavior if he really did what she claimed. Or, she could have been agitated that he didn’t respond as she had hoped. Either way, she shared it with her husband. Shepard is now one of America’s most aggressive anti-racism campaigners. He spoke out in 2004 when it was speculated that the Emmett Till case might be reopened to look at Carolyn Bryant’s role in Till’s death. He also admitted that Bryant and Milam had openly bragged about how they had tortured and killed Till.
Young Emmet Till was kidnaped from his uncle’s house, forced into a truck and murdered on or about August 28, 1955. Three days later, his body, though tied to a heavy cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, surfaced. His corpse was so disfigured that Mose Wright, his cousin, could only identify him by an initialed ring. Authorities wanted to bury the body quickly, but Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, requested it be sent back to Chicago. After seeing the mutilated remains, she decided to have an open-casket funeral so that the entire world could see what racist murderers had done to her only son. The Chicago Defender’s headline: “Nation Shocked, Vow Action in Lynching of Chicago Youth,” along with Jet, which published a photo of Till’s corpse, prompted the mainstream media to pick up on the story.
Less than two weeks after Till’s body was buried, Milam and Bryant went on trial in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. There were few witnesses besides Wright who positively identified the defendants as Till’s killers. On September 23, the all-white, all-male jury deliberated for less than an hour before issuing a verdict of “not guilty,” explaining that they believed the state had failed to prove the identity of the body. Many people around the country were outraged by the decision and also by the state’s decision not to indict the two conspirators on the separate charge of kidnapping.
Bryant and Milam subsequently detailed to a magazine journalist how they brutally murdered Till. Milam died in 1980 and Bryant in 1990. No one else was ever indicted or prosecuted for involvement with the kidnaping or murder.
It is shocking that the federal government never pursued civil rights charges against any of the three parties involved. One has to question why the government seems so ineffective in terms of successes on civil rights
cases, even in recent cases such as Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and so many more. If any good has come out of Till’s death, it is that the specter of the Klan and the extreme racism and brutality inherent in their existence were exposed to everyone around the country thus bringing to light the brutality of Jim Crow segregation in the South. This exposure served as an early impetus to the African American civil rights movement.
Today’s list of young Black men being cut from the “umbilical cord” of their lives is equally disconcerting. The guilty may not publicly brag or boast, but their actions certainly attest to their comfort with killing Black men and getting away with it under the guise of the law. It’s something that people have become accustomed to, yet with the emergence of technology—the ability to capture arrests or excessive force by police in action—has made it more difficult and yet we witnessed the law follow the ‘Blue code,’ justifying the inexcusable acts of those hired to serve and protect the communities, which they abuse and usurp extreme authority. For example in the case of Walter Scott, police officer Michael Slager claimed that Scott snatched his Taser from him and ran prompting him to fire 8 bullets the shooting at Scot’s back. He called in the report then planted the Taser on under the dead body of Scott and reported that he had shot in self defense when in truth there was no weapon. Had there been no video of what actually transpired, Slager would have walked free.
Just as Emmett Till’s murder evoked people to protest and helped to spur the civil rights movement onward with passion, the more recent deaths of sons and daughters have forced both young and older Americans into the streets to protest the “dis-justice.” The recent calls by legal authorities in the case of Walter Scott and that of Freddie Gray to charge the police officers show that progress is astir. Yes, the Walter Scott case became a game changer by charging police officer Michael Slager with murder.
It may be a different state, but it’s still America, so when Marilyn J. Mosley, the 35-year old state’s attorney for Baltimore city—who happens to be African-American—took a stand and filed charges against six police officers last Friday with a range of crimes, including murder and manslaughter in the arrest and fatal injury of Freddie Gray, it was in sync with the Walter Scott case. Mosby made her decision after receiving the medical examiner’s report established Gray’s death as a homicide. The growing evidence was too clear to ignore and led to her decision. While the police investigation is complete, Mosby’s office said her office will conduct its own inquiry.
“We are not relying solely on their findings but rather the facts that we have gathered and verified,” she said.
There are those who oppose her decision, and her motives for bypassing a grand jury calling it hasty, but her swift decision brought a necessary and much- needed calm to a city that had taken to the streets showing the frustration, anger, distrust and rage they felt in violent flare-ups that resulted in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s calling a State of Emergence and imposing a 10 p.m. curfew. The case has yet to be tried, so the country waits hopefully and is encouraged the change that is afoot.