In 1955, a 14-year-old Black male teenager from Chicago was sent by his mother to visit his family in Money, Mississippi. This innocent teenager was named Emmett Louis Till. Till was having a great time visiting his Southern family, receiving all the love and attention and having carefree fun for three days into his visit before the horrid curse of violent, racist injustice struck him, his family, and the United States of America!
Till was born on July 25, 1941, and was murdered on August 28, 1955. Emmett, as most Americans know, was violently tortured and murdered in Money, Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a married White woman named Carolyn Bryant.
This rule was a long-held racial taboo in the Southern states. Black males were not allowed to even look at White women in their eyes in public let alone whistle at them or around them. Such racist, classist, unjust social rules were a result of the terrible slavery system passed down as the Jim Crow racist system of the South.
Being born and raised in Chicago, Till wasn’t accustomed to such public social rules. Although racist outliers existed against Blacks in Chicago, they were not as rigid and as violently enforced as in the Southern states.
Young Till was tracked down the day after the so-called whistling incident. The White husband of the woman and his White male friends, along with a Black man, came to the home where Till was staying. They barged into the home and grabbed Till, along with his cousin, Simeon Wright, who was with Till at the time of the whistling incident.
After figuring out which of the boys was the one who supposedly whistled, the abductors busted teeth out of Simeon’s mouth by throwing him off their truck, then taking off with Till. Witnesses in the trial said they saw them drive up with Emmett and take him into a barn where they tormented the child for hours.
Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman who claimed she was whistled at, and brother-in-law J.W. Milam kidnapped and brutally murdered Till. They dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.
This murder shocked the nation by gaining global media coverage. In turn, this case infused a generation of Black Americans to create and join the Civil Rights Movement. With nationwide media coverage, the funeral of Till was held in Chicago with an open casket where all could see the terrible swelling and mutilation from the beating put on Till by the murderers.
Outrage ensued throughout the nation and even world-wide for such racist brutality being allowed in the United States. Black media outlets and organizations went in with all resources exposing the tragedy by even putting Till’s funeral casket picture on their front pages.
Jet Magazine even put the picture on the front of their magazine. Black politicians, the NAACP, and Black celebrities expressed their heartbreak and outrage at this ongoing murder and rape of Blacks throughout the United States.
Then came the trial and attempt to get justice for Till’s family and for the Black community held in Sumner, Mississippi in September 1955. Till’s great-uncle testifying against the murderers marked the first time a Black human testified against a White human in the state of Mississippi.
The problem was the defense was up against long-held practices of allowing White people to murder, rape and torture Blacks in Mississippi. It was clear what the outcome would be when the judge threw out all the testimonies given by all witnesses to the kidnapping and murder of Till, even after they testified in court. The murderers were acquitted of all charges including the murder charges.
With all the media coverage, it was clear to the entire world the U.S. government was continuing the oppression of Black Americans although the U.S. was proclaiming itself to be the beacon of justice and freedom.
This case galvanized generations of Blacks and some non-Blacks to take up the cause of human rights and justice throughout the U.S. With the likes of Paul Robeson and those generations of devotees who worked and lived for justice and freedom, African Americans such as myself could get our education, and I am free to write this article and you are free to read it.
In 2007, a federal bill named “The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act” was created due to the continual efforts of dedicated citizens. All of the civil rights work and successes make it clear that we have the ability and right to challenge laws and practices no matter how old and how cherished by the rich and or the government.
With all this revealed, Carolyn Bryant in an interview at the age of 82 recanted her claim about Till whistling at her, stating it wasn’t true and it did not happen.
Justice cannot only become a thing of the past, a memory of the noble generations who sacrificed for current generations’ liberties and rights. Justice has to be openly taught as a pillar of the African American legacy.
Over the last decade, Blacks were being murdered on camera continually by police officers even though White males continue to be the super majority of people who murder cops. Also, the all-White male police officers did this while there was an African American president of the United States.
Clearly, this is an agenda. This is evidence that the agenda to torment and murder Blacks has continued and will continue in the U.S. if African Americans and immigrants and other underrepresented ethnic groups do not organize together and concentrate resources and effort on stopping the killings—not to mention the world’s biggest privately-owned prison system, holding the highest number of humans on Earth. This clearly is a systematic strategy and not random.
Many, such as Dr. Cornell West, say that we live in a more autocratic authoritarian state in the U.S. than ever before. Thus, I ponder, was slavery transformed? Is Jim Crow and apartheid implemented throughout the U.S. in covert methods to this day?
Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi representative David Duke once said, and I paraphrase, “We, the Ku Klux Klan, took off our hoods and put on suits and ties and filled the politician seats and board rooms and senators’ seats.” How about that?
David Johnson is contributing writer at the Los Angeles Sentinel. This commentary was edited for space.