Jul 22, 2013
In 1955, the brutal racist murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi shocked the world. When this 14-year-old black child’s body was retrieved from the Tallahatchie River, his head was damaged, his eye dislodged, there was a gunshot wound to his head, and a 70-pound weight hung around his neck with barbed wire.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on an open casket and a public funeral in Chicago. She said: “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”
Emmett Till was spending the summer with his uncle and cousins in Mississippi. After a day working in the cotton fields, Emmett and other teens went to the store to buy candy. In the store, Emmett was accused of whistling at the white woman working behind the counter.
A week later the woman’s husband and others kidnapped Emmett from his uncle’s home. According to a Look magazine interview with the killers published in 1956, they said they pistol whipped him and they “shot him by the river and weighted his body.” An all-white jury found them not guilty.
Emmett Till was not the only black person to face racist violence in Mississippi. By 1955, there had been 500 black people terrorized and murdered by white mobs in Mississippi since 1882, when lynching records began.
But for many in the black community, the moment of decision to act came with the August 1955 lynching of this 14-year-old.
Myrlie Evers, the wife and later widow of Medgar Evers, said this case shook “the foundations of Mississippi ...because it said not even a child was safe from racism and bigotry and death.”
The terrible miscarriage of justice in the case declared an open season on young black men. They could be tortured, beaten, shot and killed without repercussions.
The case showed the black population that the court and laws were incapable and unwilling to protect the black population from racist violence. Blacks came to see they had to go outside the system to defend themselves against racism and the system that supported it.
Rosa Parks stated in a later interview that on December 1, 1955 when she refused to move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”
The murder of Trayvon Martin today serves to show to this generation that they also have to go outside the system to defend themselves against racism and the system that still supports it.