Two young victims of racist hate

Marlene Martin tells the story of a racist murder half a century before Trayvon.

Emmett Till and Trayvon MartinEmmett Till and Trayvon Martin

AN AFRICAN American teenager murdered in the South. His killer goes unpunished. The authorities and local media blame the victim. But his death sparks a mass movement against racism.

That could describe the case of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida in February 2012. But it's also the story of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Money, Miss., in 1955.

What happened to Emmett might have been lost to history if it wasn't for the courage of his family in standing up against racism. In fact, when the Tallahatchie River was dredged in the search for Emmett's body, several other Black corpses were found. But it is Emmett Till's name that is remembered today because of what happened after his death.

In its day, the Till case riveted worldwide attention on the racist system of apartheid in the U.S. South, and it became a catalyst for the civil rights movement that broke the back of that system. Today, as we struggle against what anti-racists call "the new Jim Crow" all across the U.S., we would do well to remember Emmett's story and the impact it had.

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LIKE TRAYVON Martin, who was deemed "suspicious" by George Zimmerman because he was wearing a hoodie while walking through a gated community, Emmett Till committed a "criminal act" when he whistled at a white woman--a youthful prank that he would pay for with his life.

Emmett wasn't familiar with the depths of racism in the pre-civil rights movement South. He lived in Chicago and was in Mississippi visiting his uncle's family. His mother later said that before Emmett left, she warned him to be on his best behavior, especially in front of white people. "Be careful," she remembered telling Emmett. "If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly."

One afternoon, Emmett and his cousins went into town to get candy at a store. Accounts vary on what exactly happened in the store. According to Simeon Wright, one of Emmett's cousins, who was with him that day, as the group of youths were walking away from the store, Emmett whistled at a white woman whose husband owned the store.

While Emmett probably did this jokingly, his terrified cousins knew immediately that his action could have grave consequences. This was the Jim Crow South, where Blacks were second-class citizens in every way. Their right to vote was severely restricted. Grown Black men were called "boys." Every aspect of life was segregated, from schools to swimming pools to buses.

The year before, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled, in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This infuriated the white power structure of the South, which was determined that Blacks would never be on an equal footing with whites.

Racists turned to their tried-and-true method of terrorism following the Brown decision to make it clear how any African American who stood up for their rights would be treated.

One week before Emmett arrived in Mississippi, Lamar Smith, a 63-year-old farmer who was active in urging Blacks to vote, was shot in broad daylight on the courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Miss., 150 miles south of Money. There were many witnesses to the shooting, but Lamar's killers were never indicted, because "no one would admit they saw a white man shoot a Black man," as the Southern Poverty Law Center put it.

Likewise, Emmett's actions were seen as something that couldn't be tolerated. A few days afterward, two white men--Ray Bryant, the husband of the woman, and her brother J.W. Milam--went to the house of Emmett's uncle in the middle of the night and demanded the "nigger who did the talking." As they left with Emmett, the two men turned to 64-year-old Moses Wright and warned him at gunpoint to keep his mouth shut or "you'll never live to be 65."

For the next three days, no one knew what had become of Emmett. Civil rights activists Amzie Moore and Medgar Evers came to Money disguised as migrant agricultural workers, and went out into the fields to try to get information.

Then Emmett's body was pulled out of the river. A 70-pound cotton gin fan had been tied to his neck with barbwire to weigh him down. His body was disfigured and bloated from being in the water. Emmett's right eye hung out of its socket; his left eye had been gouged out. All of his teeth were missing but for two. Bones were broken in one leg and both wrists. There was a hole in the right temple of Emmett's head where he had been shot. The only way he could be identified was from a ring he was wearing.

Emmett's mother, Maime Till Mobley, insisted that Emmett's body be brought back to Chicago. Horrified at seeing what had been done to her son, she decided to have an open casket funeral--because, she said, "I wanted the world to see what racism looks like."

As many as 10,000 people viewed Emmett's body before he was buried. Some fainted when they saw him. Pictures of Emmett lying in his coffin were put on the cover of Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender newspaper.

The ugly image of American racism was on display for the world to see, and it had a profound effect. As Myrlie Evers, the wife of Medgar Evers, said, the case resonated with whites because it got national publicity, and with Blacks because "it said not even a child was safe from racism and bigotry and death." These same words could be used about Trayvon Martin today.

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THE DESCRIPTIONS of the trial of Emmett Till's killers are hard to believe.

The jury, of course, was all white. The courtroom was completely segregated. The white press was allowed to be up close to the jury, while the Black press had to sit in the back. Jury members drank beer while hearing the case, and some white men came to court openly wearing handguns in their holsters. Whites were offered ice water with lemon slices as refreshment during the sweltering trial days; Blacks got nothing.

Tallahatchie County Sherriff Clarence Strider--who during the trial locked up two Black men he was told were witnesses to the murder rather than allow them to testify--is said to have greeted African Americans coming back to the courtroom after lunch with the words "Hello niggers."

The sick displays of racism were a stark contrast to the courage and dignity of Emmett's uncle, Moses Wright. Wright was called to the witness stand and asked if he could identify the men who had come to his house to take away Emmett. He stood up and said, "Thar he is."

Black journalist James Hicks described the moment when a Black man implicated a white man in a Jim Crow courtroom: "I mean, talk about courage...It was like history in that courtroom. It was like electricity in that courtroom."

Nevertheless, the two men were acquitted. The jury took a little over an hour to deliberate--including the time they had drinks.

A few days after the verdict, for his own safety, Moses Wright moved out of Mississippi and never returned.

Four months after the trial, Look magazine did an interview with Bryant and Milan in which they admitted to killing Emmett. They claimed they were justified in what they did. "As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place," said Milan. "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'."

Meanwhile, Maime Till Mobley was speaking out about her son across the country. Thousands came to hear her during a speaking tour organized by the NAACP. Maime remained active on civil rights issues right up until her death in 2003.

The lynching of Emmett Till has obvious parallels to the case of Trayvon Martin today. Both were young Black men, guilty of "being Black" in a society mired in racism. Both cases show the failures of the criminal justice system and its disregard for the lives of African Americans. Both young men have family members willing to speak out--to demand justice and to put the cases in a larger context.

Simeon Wright, the cousin who was lying in the same bed with Emmett the night he was kidnapped, said in an interview with the Smithsonian (where the coffin Emmett lay in is now on display):

[Maime Till Mobley] wanted the world to see what those men had done to her son because no one would have believed it if they didn't see the picture. And when they saw what happened, this motivated a lot of people that were standing, what we call, "on the fence" against racism. It encouraged them to get in the fight and do something about it. That's why many say that this was the beginning of the civil rights era.

Rosa Parks, who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December of the year Emmett died, later said that when she was ordered to get up from her seat and move to the back of the bus, ""I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn't go back."

Today, we have to think of Emmett and Trayvon and so many others--and vow that we will do the same thing: Never go back.