The acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin brought intense feelings throughout the United States, particularly in the African American community. For many, it brought back the feelings of injustice and discrimination that many African Americans have experienced. Even with the civil rights laws and the progressive attitudes of the younger generation, the experience of slavery, violence, and lack of justice and equality remains entrenched in the African American experience. The name of Emmett Till has been brought back to the forefront of the discussion. His name is legendary in many families. And recent events remind us that his name and fate should not be forgotten.
Sadly, his story was not uncommon. During the night of August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, an African American teenager from Chicago, was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched in Money, Mississippi. Emmett (known to his family and friends as Bobo) was visiting a cousin who lived in Mississippi. Since he was born and raised in Chicago, he had never experienced the racial segregation or hatred in the southern United States.
One fateful day, he and his cousins went to the local market to buy candy. Emmett allegedly whistled at the white woman who owned the store, but this remains a question. Three days later, the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant and his half-brother kidnapped Emmett from his home at gunpoint. They took him to a shed, beat him viciously, shot him and dumped his body in the river. Even though there were witnesses to these events who courageously testified at the trial, the jury acquitted them of the murder charge. The kidnapping charge had already been dismissed. The brothers later admitted killing Emmett and sold their story to a magazine.
What is uncommon about his story is that Emmett’s mother insisted on bringing her young son’s horribly mutilated body back to Chicago and keeping the casket open for all to see the violence that her son had suffered. People came from all around the country to see his body. Many people screamed or fainted at the unforgettable sight of the terribly beaten, dead child.
Many people also remember the anger and frustration at the system that refused to punish the people known to have killed Emmett. That anger and frustration have resurged as more young and innocent African Americans have been killed.
But there are lessons that can be learned from the terrible experience of Emmett Till and the unjust acquittal of his killers.
1. Many African Americans are continuing to feel unprotected by the law.
In 1955, the killers of Emmett Till were reluctantly prosecuted, then freed by an all-white jury who (in one juror’s words) felt that a white person should not be punished for killing a black person. More recently, Juror B37 in the George Zimmerman case clearly identified with “George” and did not want him punished for killing young Trayvon Martin.
There are, of course, other real life experiences but remember the graphic opening scene of The Butler in which Cecil’s father was killed by his white employer. A Black person’s life was not considered valuable so killers of African Americans were rarely punished. Lynchings were common. Punishment for the killers was rare. Recent events are causing many people to wonder if these injustices are coming back to life.
2. Unfair and unjust criminal trials continue to plague African American community.
Studies show that African American defendants are disproportionately prosecuted and more harshly sentenced than white defendants. Moreover, criminal prosecutions of a white defendant against a black victim have resulted in disproportionately light sentences or acquittals.
Remember the Rodney King and Stanley Goetz cases. The unjust results in those famous cases involving a black victim (Rodney King who was beaten by four police officers) and a white defendant (Stanley Goetz who shot 4 African Americans on the New York subway) illustrate the lack of protection afforded by law to African American victims. More recently, George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing the unarmed and innocent Trayvon Martin. There are many more examples.
3. African Americans continue to live with the frustration, anger, and fear of racism and injustice.
Although many whites were moved and angered by the Emmett Till case (Bob Dylan wrote a song about it), most of the outrage was concentrated in and experienced by the African American community. This segmentation might have resulted from the fear that Black children were not safe from lynching and that the law did not look sympathetically at a child who was tortured and killed.
In recent years, these feelings have been renewed as African American youths, including 16-year old Trayvon Martin, 22-year old Oscar Grant (whose story is portrayed in the Fruitvale movie), and high school senior Alan Blueford were killed—and their killers were not adequately punished. Perhaps Juror B37 would have failed to identify with young Emmett. There are more examples.
Examining history is an important way to determine how the future could appear. Emmett Till never received justice from the law. More than 60 years later, injustice continues to plague the legal system for African Americans. These recent unjust cases speak to a legal system that begs for equality as much as African Americans are demanding equal protection under it.
Today, people of all backgrounds and races are protesting the injustice and racial profiling that are making African Americans vulnerable to violence. People are demanding justice and punishment against the perpetrators of violence. There are marches and protests aimed at repealing unjust and discriminatory laws such as the “Stand your ground” law in Florida and voting restriction laws in Mississippi. Most importantly, people of all races are standing together against racism, injustice, and violence.
The real “Emmett Till” lesson was proclaimed most clearly by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he stated in a letter from a Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”