Sixty years after Emmett Till was killed for daring to assert his humanity, African Americans are still being killed for doing the same.
Charles M. Blow hears echoes of Emmett Till’s killing in the cycle so often repeated in the news today: “Young lives are lost, the body itself is desecrated or neglected, killers are acquitted or not even brought to trial, and the effects of the feelings of terror and injustice galvanize a generation of young people who have taken as much as they plan to take.”
Till was murdered for flirting with and whistling at a white woman, things that could get a black man killed in the Deep South in 1955. The 14-year-old, sent to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi, was warned of as much by his mother Mamie Bradley, who told him “to be very careful… to humble himself to the extent of getting down on his knees.” Growing up in Chicago, Till didn’t know how much his life would depend on humbling himself “to the extent of getting down on his knees,” before the kind of hatred that would seek to strip him of his humanity and dare him to object.
On August 24, while standing outside a store in Money with his cousins, Till bragged about having a white girlfriend back in Chicago. His cousins dared him to ask the white woman behind the counter for a date. Till went in to buy some candy, and was heard to flirt with the woman — Joyce Bryant — and wolf-whistle at her on his way out.
In the wee hours of the morning on August 28, Till was abducted from the home of his great-uncle Mose Wright by Roy Bryant — Carol Bryant’s husband — and Bryant’s cousin J.W. Milam. Three days later, Till’s badly disfigured corpse was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. Till was beaten, shot, and sunk in the river by a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. Mamie Bradley insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son, and photos of Till’s body showed the world the brutality of Southern racism.
Meanwhile, Southern justice worked as it always did. After a trial in which Wright positively identified them as Till’s abductors and killers, an all-white jury took less than an hour to find Bryant and Milam “not guilty.” Shortly after the verdict, Bryant and Milam sold their story of Till’s death — their confession — to Look magazine for $4,000.
“The Shocking Story of Approved Killing In Mississippi,” published in 1956, revealed that Bryant and Milam didn’t murder Till (known as “Bobo” to his family and friends) merely for whistling at a white woman.
Bobo wasn’t afraid of them! He was tough as they were. He didn’t think they had the guts to kill him.
Milam: “We were never able to scare him. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.”
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Bobo: “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. My grandmother was a white woman.”
Milam: “Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers – in their place – I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ’I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you – just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”
What drove them to murder was Till’s “insolence” in refusing to show deference or fear, and asserting his equal humanity. For a black man to think he was “as good as” a white man, and daring to stand up and talk back to a white man rather than offer the expected show of deference, was as deadly as poison.
Under the Jim Crow laws of the South, blacks were required to be agreeable and nonchallenging in dealings with whites. No black person could risk even insinuating that a white person might be wrong. Under no circumstances were black people ever to assert equality with whites. The penalty for doing so was often death.
Sixty years later, African-American parents must still teach our children that asserting their rights as citizens, or “insisting on their dignity and humanity” can prove fatal. We have too many recent examples of African-Americans losing their lives for the same thing that fueled the wrath of Till’s murderers.
● Walking White Black: Trayvon Martin died for “standing his ground,” asserting his right to be where he was, and daring to challenge George Zimmerman for following him as he made his way back to his father’s home. Conservative commentators at suggested that Martin should have deferred to Zimmerman, and not challenged him.
● Looking While Black: At the time of Till’s death, even making eye contact with whites was taken as a sign that a black man thought he was equal to whites, and could lead to a lynching. The events leading to Freddie’s Gray’s death in Baltimore Police Department custody started when Gray made eye contact with a police officer, leading to his pursuit and arrest. More recently, John Felton was pulled over after making eye contact with a police officer in Dayton, Ohio. As Rev. Jamal Bryan said at Gray’s funeral, “He was a threat simply because he was man enough to look somebody in authority in the eye.”
● Driving White Black: Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, because officer Brian Encinia arrested her out of frustration over Bland asserting her rights as a citizen and refusing to yield to his abuse of his authority as police officer. One commentator blamed Bland for her death, because she was “arrogant from the start.”
It’s no wonder Charles M. Blow hears echoes of Emmett Till’s death in today’s headlines. They are almost deafening.