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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 years postmortem? I blogged on this topic last August upon the 56th anniversary of Till's brutal death back in 1955. Now his name is reappearing as national and international reporters, civil rights observers and historians are linking this famous Mississippi lynching 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 the killing 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 rights movement in Mississippi, is this: Back in 1955 when Emmett Till was kidnapped and lynched, local police acted quickly, the FBI came into Mississippi fast at the request of the Jackson NAACP coordinator, Medgar Evers, and even a large labor union from Chicago paid pilots to fly over the affected Delta region within a day of the event. The two murderers were quickly 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 for anyone who might be thinking that "things" have been getting better since the murder of Till and end of the Jim Crow era. Still more questions deserve answers and as the author of three books on the murder of Emmett Till (and related Mississippi civil rights history) I'll share my thoughts, starting with Till and why his slaying remains so important in this country's story: First, Emmett Till's murder represents the unofficial start of the modern civil rights movement, 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 worldwide uproar 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 soon represented the lack of justice for blacks in the South. People took action - many of whom, until then, had been safely sitting on the civil rights 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 large numbers, resulting in added awareness of the difficulties that had to be overcome to register 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 also raised with the story of an earlier murder in 1917 of a nearby Drew sharecropper returning from WWI who was killed in a frenzy of gunfire, in the same town near where Till was taken and beaten. A lynch mob of over 1,000 people tracked down Joe Pullen, and his murder was covered by the national press from coast to coast, a first for such events in Mississippi or in the U.S. Before 1954, 265 black people were registered to vote in the Delta although they represented 41% of the population. The summer that Emmett Till was killed, following the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown II decision that suggested schools be integrated "at all deliberate speed," no black voters were registered in the Delta. Volunteers working during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 registered 63,000 black voters and they were required to form their own political party because they were forbidden from joining the established parties in Mississippi. Then consider the Civil Rights Act of 1957, primarily a voting rights bill proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower and the first civil rights legislation enacted by Congress in the United States since Reconstruction; Till's death clearly influenced this legislation. Till's murder also shook the foundations of Mississippi, both black and white-with the white 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 further know this event had impact since the NAACP asked Emmett's mother to tour the country relating the events of her son's life, death, and the trial of his murderers. It was 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. Clenora Hudson-Weems, as the "sacrificial lamb" for civil rights. Post WWII civil rights leader 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 Rights Movement starts out with the murder of Emmett Till. IN MISSISSIPPI, EMMETT Till's murder resulted in more regional and state news coverage and examination. From this time forward, more racial incidents throughout the state were spotlighted and magnified, not necessarily fairly, but still reported. Journalist Hodding Carter, Jr. of Greenville, well known outside of Mississippi as a progressive journalist and a Pulizer Prize winner who often attempted to help the rest of the country understand segregation and the South, wrote early about Till, asserting those guilty of "this savage crime" should be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." White people in Mississippi, bolstered by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, began coming up quickly with justifications, such as Till being like his father who was put to death by the U.S. military for raping a woman overseas. Incidentally, there is now historical argument over what really happened to Louis Till - since a number of black soldiers met 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 white power structure started to decline. Nevertheless, the revolt officially began on December 1, 1955 with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Even with so many white people just now hearing the Emmett Till story, especially in the North, Till's murder was having an immediate and enormous impact in the black community throughout the country starting at the end of the summer of 1955 and moving into Parks's refusal to give up her seat to a white bus rider that sparked a yearlong wellorganized grassroots boycott of the public bus system, forcing the city to change their segregation policies. Parks later told Mrs. Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett's mother, and wrote in her autobiography that when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, "I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn't go back." (Do you remember being taught in your history classes that Rosa Parks was simply tired 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 integrating Little Rock Central High School only two years later in 1957 were especially profound as history continued its path onward to the resulting Freedom Rides and lunch counter sit-ins. The impact of this murder continues to be the focus of literature, memorials and the news. Some examples:
A statue was unveiled in Denver in 1976 (and has since been moved to Pueblo, Colorado) featuring Emmett Till with Martin Luther King, Jr. Emmett Till was included among the forty names of people who had died in the Civil Rights Movement (listed as martyrs) on the granite sculpture of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated in 1989. Mamie Till-Mobley attended many of the dedications for the memorials, including a demonstration in Selma, Alabama on the 35th anniversary of the march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge. She later wrote in her memoirs, "I realized that Emmett had achieved the significant impact in death that he had been denied in life. Even so, I had never wanted Emmett to be a martyr. I only wanted him to be a good son." Till-Mobley died in 2003, the same year her memoirs were published. The Emmett Till Highway" was dedicated between Greenwood and Tutwiler, Mississippi, the same route Till's body took to the train station on its way to Chicago; it intersects with the H. C. "Clarence" Strider Memorial Highway, named for a notorious sheriff of Tallahatchie County from 1951-1955 and witness for the defense at the Milam-Bryant murder trial (Till's confessed killers). Unfortunately, the Till highway sign has been repeatedly vandalized. In 2007, Tallahatchie County issued a formal apology to Emmett Till's family. In the same year, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, whose skull was fractured while being beaten during the 1965 Selma march, sponsored a bill that provides a plan for investigating and prosecuting unsolved Civil Rights era murders. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was signed into law in 2008. On July 9, 2009, a manager and three laborers at Burr Oak Cemetery were charged with digging up bodies, dumping them in a remote area, and reselling the plots. Till's grave was not disturbed, but investigators found his original glass-topped casket rusting in a dilapidated storage shed. When Till was reburied in a new casket in 2005, there were plans for an Emmett Till memorial museum, where his original casket would be installed. The cemetery manager, who administered the memorial fund, pocketed donations intended for the memorial. Cemetery officials also neglected the casket, which was discolored, the interior fabric torn, and bore evidence that animals had been living in it, although its glass top was still intact. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. acquired the casket a month later. The Ballad of Emmett Till, The Face of Emmett Till, Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till -- all plays representing theatrical interest paid to this true story accompany songs written by Bob Dylan and Emmy Lou Harris, among others, or special ballets and other tributes.
THERE ARE MORE similarities to be discovered and naturally to emerge between the murders of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin. Speaking just to Florida's initial delayed reaction, the lack of arrest of George Zimmerman, Martin's killer, is "partly a function of an outlandish law, pushed by the National Rifle Association, that allows people to use deadly force against anyone whom they perceive as a threat. It is nothing short of a state-sanctioned license for people to engage in vigilante lawlessness," observes reporter Jonathan P. Hicks for BET. Hicks and others find another troubling aspect of the Trayvon Martin police scenario is the "...unbelievable ineptitude of the law enforcement officials in the Orlando suburb of Sanford, Florida who allowed George Zimmerman, the white killer (with a Hispanic mother), to claim he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense and to walk away from the police station without doing basic drug testing." Ironically, officers in Mississippi may have done better job than what we have seen thus far in Sanford, Florida; I would guess Mississippi officials were more fearful of federal involvement than today's Florida officials -- at least at first. Back when Till was killed in the Magnolia state, officers quickly tracked down and arrested the two men who later admitted killing Till (after they were found innocent in the courtroom). Mississippi was scared into action by a powerful union chief, a friend of Till's mother, who quickly brought in the surveillance airplanes. Even the FBI got quickly involved and later documents show they immediately began an investigation. The lack of diligence by the Sanford police, and the slowness of the FBI and DOJ to get involved is amazing, when you once again compare this to what happened in Mississippi. ***** Coming into the 57th anniversary of Emmett Till's murder, I am honestly angry that I had to move to the heart of the Delta nearly ten years ago to learn this important piece of American history. My high school history books did not include this story and I was raised in the North where civil rights problems are still largely ignored as we engage in de facto segregation (that operates like a caste system, but is not legally protected) and do not admit to our problems or have much dialogue in our schools and churches. In my own Episcopal church this past year, I could not get the priests to honor Rev. Martin Luther King, or to preach a special sermon for Black History Month. My last point: I found myself educating the head of the anthropology department of a prestigious northern Catholic university last August on the murder of Emmett Till. This white professor only knew his name. Internationally known for her cultural
research, she was embarrassed after hearing the entire story and said she would make certain that her future students hear it, too. I believe she will follow through - this story is just too important for anyone to claim ignorance and so is what we are learning about murder of a young African American boy from Florida who was simply walking home, wearing a hoody, carrying a cell phone, and bringing with him some candy to share...some 57 years later. ***** The Trayvon Martin case reflects the same horror that many Americans felt a generation ago through the ghastly murder of Emmett Till. "There is the terror of a Black teenager, with all the promise of a fulfilling life, cut off before he even reaches manhood," Jonathan Hicks reports. We never heard Emmett Till's screams of horror. Because of the digital recording devices we hear Trayvon's recorded screams that will stay with us forever, sounds of terror we must never forget. We can no longer afford to be so stupidly innocent. Too many issues face us that require public discussion and change.
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