The killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the incompetent response of local police brings back the memory of Emmett Till who was brutally murdered in 1955 by two white men in Mississippi. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam kidnapped Till, pistol whipped him, shot him in the head and tried to dispose of his body by dumping it in a river. They did this to Till simply because he was a young black male and behaved in a manner toward Bryant’s wife that Bryant and Milam found offensive. Bryant and Milam were tried for the crime before an all white jury and found not guilty. Later they admitted to the murder during an interview for a Look magazine article. They were and remained non-repent til their deaths. They never served one day for what they did to Emmett Till.
In 1955, black Americans were expected to, as W.E.B. Dubois wrote, live “behind a veil.” They had to be careful about what they said and what they did in the presence of white Americans or risk being maimed or even killed. This was particularly true for young black males and particularly true in the South.
It is chilling to hear black parents today saying that they have to instruct their kids, especially their sons, in how to protect themselves from innocently provoking an unwarranted attack from a white person and that they have to be particularly careful in the presence of a white person such as a policeman, security guard or self-appointed neighborhood watchman. Most white Americans thought black Americans no longer had to live “behind a veil.” That’s clearly not true. Of course, most black Americans already knew that.
Emmett Till’s mother was so incensed at what Bryant and Milam had done to her child that she had his mutilated body displayed in an open casket at his funeral and allowed pictures to be taken so that the entire country could see what these white men had done to her hc. That vivid photographic evidence of what two white men and done to Till for no reason other than that he was a black teenager horrified Americans black and white. Emmett Till’s murder, along with the Montgomery bus boycotts of the same year, led to the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first civil rights legislation passed in more than 80 years. The 1957 Civil Rights Act set the stage for the later, and better known, 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Maybe Trayvon Martin’s murder will lead to a similar outrage and the repeal of laws such as the one in Florida that sanctions and legalizes violence by one American against another even for the slimmest of excuses.