BY TRONE DOWD
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the ruthless and senseless murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Born in Chicago in 1941, since his death Till has been described numerous times as a happy, good hearted kid with solid values and work ethic, despite the tumultuous time period he was born in. He often helped his working class mother, who was an academically sound woman, the first in her almost all white school to get on honor roll. He was loved by friends and was seemingly on the right track.
That was until a fateful visit to Mississippi with his uncle Moses Wright and cousin Wheeler Parker. After begging his mother to go, young Emmett was given the reluctant okay to go visit his far off relatives with his family.
While it is uncertain for sure what exactly happened, it is known that young Emmett interacted with Carolyn Bryant, wife of a grocery store owner, in some capacity. Whether it was light flirting, a hand touch or a whistle, the action cost 14-year-old Till his life in violent fashion.
The young boy was kidnapped from his uncle’s home by gunpoint four days after his grocery store visit by store owner Roy Bryant and his half brother John William Milam. The two brutally and viciously beat him until he was unrecognizable over the course of the night, driving around with him in the trunk of the pickup. He was then taken to Tallahatchie River and shot execution style and unceremoniously dumped in the water. When police discovered his body, he was only identified by the ring on his finger. His body was sent back to his mother for funeral arrangements. She chose to hold an open casket funeral to show the world just how cold the murder was.
The world took notice. Jesse Jackson called Till’s mother’s decision to told an open casket funeral the “largest single civil rights demonstration in American history,” and rightfully so. The effect that Till’s body had on the more than 100,000 people who saw it sparked a movement unlike anything this country had seen up until that point. That spark only intensified when murderers Bryant and Milam were acquitted of all charges before an all white, all male jury in Mississippi. Even when Bryant and Milam admitted to the murder just months after the trial, there was no justice doled out to the two.
There is so much wrong with this now infamous tale of a time much rougher and more terrifying for Black America. But let’s not let our distance from the incident desensitize us from what is easily one of the greatest tragedies in our country’s history and biggest failures of our justice system. More than half a century later, Emmett Till is still a symbol, unfortunately one of many, for something we still fight for today. He was murdered not because of his alleged “crime” as determined by his murderer, but simply because he was a black youth.
While we more than likely don’t teach our young men to whistle at women in the street or flirt openly, what 14-year-old doesn’t? These actions can almost be regulated to and made synonymous with typical harmless teenage behavior. Not many adult men can look back at their teenage years and say they never flirted with the pretty girl down the block or in math class at some point or another. At the end of the day, Till’s “crime” was completely harmless and did not need to end the way it did, whether you’re looking at it from his murderer’s perspective or from a sensible perspective.
The parallels to what we face today are astonishing.
Let’s take a look at Michael Brown. Was the young man a shining example of Black excellence in his final hours? Of course not. But he was a kid. A kid who made a poor decision, but a kid nonetheless. Childhood is meant for mistakes, missteps and learning experiences. How else are we supposed to grow as people? There’s a huge gap between black life experiences and mistakes of the average non-black child. A mistake for any other child results in an arrest and something to take note of moving forward, allowing him to make that choice as to where his life should go from there. The choice to turn one’s life around should be a basic freedom allowed to every child in this country.
Michael Brown was never allowed to make that choice. Nor Trayvon Martin, or Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who probably knew very little of his “transgression” before his life was taken away from him, never got to make that decision either.
Black lives are cut short for simply growing up black. It made, and still makes no sense that a child’s learning experience should culminate in the loss of his life. Our kids are being lined up for the slaughter, futures robbed and mothers left weeping and made examples of.
Sixty years later, let us not forget how long our children have been made victims of for nothing. Instead, let us remember the robbery of Emmett Till’s life and the thousands who were undoubtedly killed before and after him, and let that fuel us towards pushing for what we’ve needed for too long now: change.
Because no mother should still have to fear for their child’s life every time he steps out of the house. Not 60 years ago. Not today. And not ever.