A black kid from up north was visiting some relatives in the south.
Emmett Till had just turned 14. He didn’t know what the rules were. One day, playing with other boys in front of a local store, he told them that back in Chicago he had a white girlfriend; the others thought he was bragging and exaggerating and invited him to go into the store and make conversation with the woman working there, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant.
What he said to her is not known, but Bryant took offense, and she told her husband, the store owner. Shortly after that, Roy Bryant, carrying a gun and a flashlight, drove to the house where Till was staying and brought him out to a car where his wife identified the boy.
Till was put into the car and taken away. Bryant and J.W. Milam then beat, stripped, tortured, and finally shot him to death before dumping his body into the Tallahatchie River in Money, Mississippi. Even though they were identified, they were acquitted of murder by the jury of twelve white men, and the minor offense of which they were convicted was tossed on appeal.
It was 1955, a year after the integration confrontation at Little Rock, Arkansas, and the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Eisenhower was President.
Emmett Till had been the only child of Louis and Manie Till of Chicago, Illinois. His parents hadn’t wanted him to go but he’d pleaded with them. He was adventuresome. He wanted to see something of the country. When his mother put him on the bus, she warned him, “Be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly.”
But Emmett Till was a young boy and did not understand the madness of some white people.
That was fifty-six and a half years ago, the murder of Emmett Till. Between then and now we’ve had a civil right movement which shook the nation. We’ve had Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, and Fannie Lou Hamer. We’ve had the March on Washington, and Bull Conner turning loose police dogs against children in Birmingham. We’ve had the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four girls, and we’ve had Selma, and we’ve had Medgar Evers shot in the back. We’ve had Watts and Detroit and Newark. We’ve had Viola Liuzzo shotgunned in her car.
Emmett Till’s body was finally recovered, his face destroyed by the beating and by a gunshot wound. His parents kept his casket open at the funeral. “I want everyone to see what they did to my boy,” Mrs. Till said.
Twenty-nice days ago, a gun-carrying, self-appointed ‘neighborhood watch’ creep named George Zimmerman saw something he regarded as ‘suspicious’, a 17-year-old black kid who was in Sanford, Florida, visiting relatives. Zimmerman began to stalk him.
The black kid, Trayvon Martin, was armed with a can of Arizona ice tea and bag of Skittles for his cousin. It is evident from subsequent tapes of Martin’s frantic cell phone call to a friend that he was afraid; a stranger, 100 pounds heavier, was following him and closing ground. He wanted help.
Zimmerman, as much of the country now knows, shot Martin to death in cold blood.
The cops arrived. They heard Zimmerman say he’d done it in self-defense. Although Martin had no weapon, they took the word of the white killer. He was not taken into custody; his gun was not even taken from him as evidence.
For two days, Martin’s body was unclaimed because the cops didn’t bother using the cell phone to contact anyone who might’ve known him. Just another dead black guy, I guess. Guilty, as Marian Wright Edelman wrote in a scathing, brilliant essay for Reader Supported News, of walking while black.
Supposedly, the Sanford police let Zimmerman walk because he claimed protection of an idiotic Florida law which gives a person legal immunity to use "deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." It also bars the deceased’s family from filing a civil suit.
The murderer actually called 911 shortly before killing Martin, saying, according to the tape, "he’s a black male…Something’s wrong with him…These a**holes, they always get away.”
Not really. Fewer all the time, in fact. Three weeks ago, another black man, 20-year-old Bo Morrison was shot to death in Wisconsin when he tried to hide in the bushes after an underage drinking party was raided by the police. The homeowner who killed him was not charged.
These murders of black children by crazy white men are no aberration, and they will continue despite the outrage at the Martin shooting. That’s because a right wing group called the American Legislative Executive Council, a bunch of politicians and business executives from companies such as Wal-Mart, has drafted legislation which permits it, and that legislation has already been enacted in Florida, Wisconsin, and 14 other states which mimics the ALEC model.
These laws are being passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. In Florida, according to an article in Truthout by Brendan Fischer, “Senator Durell Peadon, an ALEC member, introduced the law in his state and it passed in early 2005; the NRA was behind the bill and its lobbyist Marion Hammer reportedly ’stared down legislators as they voted.’ After Governor Jeb Bush signed it into law, Hammer presented the bill to ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Force (now known as the Public Safety and Elections Task Force) months later, (and) the corporations and state legislators on the Task Force voted unanimously to approve the bill as an ALEC model. ALEC Task Force meetings are closed to the press and public, but corporations and ideological special interests or trade groups like the NRA vote as equals with elected officials.
Even with a belated Justice Department inquiry and the locals in Sanford feeling some heat, Zimmerman will probably escape any punishment. The police, not bothering to confiscate the murder weapon, will probably not be able to effectively produce it at a trial because they can no longer establish chain of custody, even if Zimmerman, who has left town, doesn’t throw it into the river. And not only that. On the scene of a homicide, the Sanford cops did not bother to test Zimmerman for drugs or alcohol, although they did test Martin’s corpse.
Considering the history of white treatment of blacks in America, a nation where it appears that the former continues with impunity to lynch the latter, I am amazed at the persistent nonviolence among blacks. I do not know how they retain such dignity and grace.
I am sixty-five years old. When Emmett Till was murdered by a couple of cracker assholes I was nine. That this is still going on in America, after all these years and all these struggles, after so many victories and such courageous work, is heartbreaking. God, I hope I live to see the day when I am not so ashamed to be white.