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Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin; Looking For Similarities

Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin; Looking For Similarities

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Published by Susan Klopfer
Some 57 years ago, a 14-year-old black visitor to the Mississippi Delta was brutally beaten and killed. Today, people ask if the murder of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin have similarities. As the author of three books on Mississippi Delta civil rights, I find the answer is yes -- and share why.
Some 57 years ago, a 14-year-old black visitor to the Mississippi Delta was brutally beaten and killed. Today, people ask if the murder of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin have similarities. As the author of three books on Mississippi Delta civil rights, I find the answer is yes -- and share why.

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Published by: Susan Klopfer on Apr 04, 2012
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Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin: Looking For SimilaritiesSusan Klopfer, author
Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited, Who Killed Emmett Till? The Emmett Till Book 
Why do we still talk about the murder of Emmett Till, some 50-plus yearspostmortem? I blogged on this topic last August upon the 56th anniversary of Till'sbrutal death back in 1955. Now his name is reappearing as national and internationalreporters, civil rights observers and historians are linking this famous Mississippilynching to the recent killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.Wasn't Emmett Till just a kid from Chicago who went to Mississippi, got into trouble,and because of a Jim Crow violation was killed? How does his murder compare to thekilling of Martin, who was not lynched in the Deep South but in the Sunshine State?My initial observation, as a writer of books on Emmett Till and the modern civil rightsmovement in Mississippi, is this:Back in 1955 when Emmett Till was kidnapped and lynched, local police actedquickly, the FBI came into Mississippi fast at the request of the Jackson NAACPcoordinator, Medgar Evers, and even a large labor union from Chicago paid pilots tofly over the affected Delta region within a day of the event. The two murderers werequickly caught and arrested, and taken to trial in less than a month.Considering what just happened in Florida and what occurred back then,
so much
foranyone who might be thinking that "things" have been getting better since the murderof Till and end of the Jim Crow era. Still more questions deserve answers and as theauthor of three books on the murder of Emmett Till (and related Mississippi civilrights history) I'll share my thoughts, starting with Till and why his slaying remains soimportant in this country's story:First, Emmett Till's murder represents the unofficial start of the modern civil rightsmovement, following a spark of indignation that ignited protests around the world.Think about it - a 14-year-old out-of-state visitor's brutal murder set off a worldwideuproar and threw a world spotlight on Mississippi's and this entire country's racism.Through constant news coverage and retelling of the story, Emmett Till's murder soonrepresented the lack of justice for blacks in the South.People took action - many of whom, until then, had been safely sitting on the civilrights sidelines. A major publication for African Americans, The Chicago Defender,
quickly urged readers to react to the acquittal of Till's murderers by voting in largenumbers, resulting in added awareness of the difficulties that had to be overcome toregister and vote.Eight years later, Sunflower County resident Fannie Lou Hamer, a poor black sharecropper, was jailed and beaten for attempting to register to vote. The next year,she led a massive voter registration drive in the Delta region. Hamer knew the story of Emmett Till quite well, because it happened near her Ruleville home. She was alsoraised with the story of an earlier murder in 1917 of a nearby Drew sharecropperreturning from WWI who was killed in a frenzy of gunfire, in the same town nearwhere Till was taken and beaten. A lynch mob of over 1,000 people tracked down JoePullen, and his murder was covered by the national press from coast to coast, a firstfor such events in Mississippi or in the U.S.Before 1954, 265 black people were registered to vote in the Delta although theyrepresented 41% of the population. The summer that Emmett Till was killed,following the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown II decision that suggested schools beintegrated "at all deliberate speed," no black voters were registered in the Delta.Volunteers working during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 registered63,000 black voters and they were required to form their own political party becausethey were forbidden from joining the established parties in Mississippi.Then consider the Civil Rights Act of 1957, primarily a voting rights bill proposed byPresident Dwight Eisenhower and the first civil rights legislation enacted by Congressin the United States since Reconstruction; Till's death clearly influenced thislegislation.Till's murder also shook the foundations of Mississippi, both black and white-with thewhite community because his murder become nationally publicized, and with blacks,because it said not even a child was safe from racism, bigotry and death. We furtherknow this event had impact since the NAACP asked Emmett's mother to tour thecountry relating the events of her son's life, death, and the trial of his murderers. Itwas one of the most successful fundraising campaigns the NAACP ever experienced.Scholars and others recognize Till's death to be the start of what has been called the"Negro revolt." For instance, Till has been called by a key black historian, Dr. ClenoraHudson-Weems, as the "sacrificial lamb" for civil rights. Post WWII civil rightsleader and NAACP operative Amzie Moore, who lived in the Delta near the site of Till's murder, also believed this killing initiated the modern Civil Rights Movement,at the very least in Mississippi. The 1987 14-hour Emmy award-winning documentary
Eyes on the Prize that first introduced critical actors and events of the Civil RightsMovement starts out with the murder of Emmett Till.IN MISSISSIPPI, EMMETT Till's murder resulted in more regional and state newscoverage and examination. From this time forward, more racial incidents throughoutthe state were spotlighted and magnified, not necessarily fairly, but still reported.Journalist Hodding Carter, Jr. of Greenville, well known outside of Mississippi as aprogressive journalist and a Pulizer Prize winner who often attempted to help the restof the country understand segregation and the South, wrote early about Till, assertingthose guilty of "this savage crime" should be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of thelaw."White people in Mississippi, bolstered by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, began comingup quickly with justifications, such as Till being like his father who was put to deathby the U.S. military for raping a woman overseas. Incidentally, there is now historicalargument over what really happened to Louis Till - since a number of black soldiersmet this fate as well, under the judicial leadership of military judge Leon Jaworski.Some say this verdict of innocence stood for an end to the Southern system of noblesse oblige as the misplaced trust and faith that many blacks had in the whitepower structure started to decline. Nevertheless, the revolt officially began onDecember 1, 1955 with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Even with so manywhite people just now hearing the Emmett Till story, especially in the North, Till'smurder was having an immediate and enormous impact in the black communitythroughout the country starting at the end of the summer of 1955 and moving intoParks's refusal to give up her seat to a white bus rider that sparked a yearlong well-organized grassroots boycott of the public bus system, forcing the city to change theirsegregation policies.Parks later told Mrs. Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett's mother, and wrote in herautobiography that when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, "I thoughtof Emmett Till and I just couldn't go back."(Do you remember being taught in your history classes that Rosa Parks was simplytired after a hard day of work and made this decision on her own? I do.)Emmett Till's death and later the widespread coverage of the students integratingLittle Rock Central High School only two years later in 1957 were especiallyprofound as history continued its path onward to the resulting Freedom Rides andlunch counter sit-ins. The impact of this murder continues to be the focus of literature,memorials and the news. Some examples:

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