ATLANTA (AP) — More than 50 years after Emmett Till was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman, one of his relatives still worries that her brother might suffer violence for being a black man married to a white woman.
“There’s a big fear still of seeing black boys with white girls,” said Priscilla Sterling, whose grandfather was a cousin of Till’s mother. “There’s still this concept of they’re going to look at you and they’re going to get you.”
“Even though my brother and his white wife live in California, where things are supposed to be better, I still have this fear that something might happen to him,” she added, her voice cracking and tears streaming down her face.
Sterling, a 40-year-old mother of five, hadn’t even been born in 1955 when her cousin was killed while visiting family in Mississippi, his body pulled from a river three days later. Still, her family feels the ripple of his slaying — often struggling to feel safe in their hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.
The 14-year-old Chicago boy’s death and the widely circulated photos of his mutilated body were a catalyst for the civil rights movement. Two white men charged in the killing, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury. They confessed to the killing in a 1956 Look magazine article.
Sterling was in Atlanta on Friday and Saturday to meet with about 60 other family members of victims of civil rights era slayings at a retreat organized by the Syracuse University College of Law’s Cold Case Justice Initiative, which reviews documents and talks to witnesses in hopes that law enforcement will reopen long-closed investigations.
As a child, Sterling was mostly unaware of the significance of Till’s death. It was something the grown-ups talked about behind closed doors. But she felt the effects in her family’s fear and distrust of interracial relationships.
And even though her generation seemed to have gotten past it — her brother and sister each have white spouses — she was surprised at her own feelings when her 17-year-old son recently brought home his Hispanic girlfriend.
“I didn’t realize I hadn’t gotten past it until the girl came over to the house, a beautiful girl, and my son said, ‘Mom, we’re going to the mall.’ I panicked, all of a sudden I just had this anxiety attack,” she said. “I didn’t realize I still had this fear of interracial couples.”
She was afraid her son would be ridiculed. Or worse.
Sterling brought two of her children — 5-year-old Emmett and 12-year-old Johnna — and her aunt with her to the retreat.
“When we were young, we were kept out of these types of issues, these types of conversations of hearing about racial injustice,” she said. “So I wanted my children to get an opportunity to hear what other families went through and how they have progressed.”
Another retreat participant, Lewis Allen, grew up in Mississippi hearing the stories of his grandfather who was shot in 1964, three years after he witnessed the killing of civil rights worker Herbert Lee. Allen’s grandfather and namesake had suffered constant harassment and threats before his death.
Allen, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, came to the retreat with his parents. He was raised by his grandmother, who mourned the death of her husband until she died.
“My grandmother would tell all of us the stories of Mississippi, the good ones as well as the bad ones,” he said. “But at certain points, we would notice that she would have to dismiss herself from our company and she’d be in her room crying about the murder.”
“It didn’t just affect me, it affected the whole family because these are the type of stories that were repeated over and over and over again about Mississippi, injustice in Mississippi,” he said.
Allen’s family believes a state elected official and the law enforcement officers who investigated his grandfather’s death were involved in the killing. There never was a trial.
The FBI said last month that it was wrapping up its Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative, which began in 2006.
Allen appreciates the efforts law enforcement agencies have put into investigating those killings, but he said they’re moving too slowly. As time goes on, witnesses and other parties involved are dying or unable to remember what happened, meaning many families will never get a sense of closure, Allen said.
“The scar of injustice is being passed down through generations,” he said.
Allen feels a certain bitterness about the fact that his grandfather’s killing has gone unpunished, but he said speaking to families with similar experiences has helped.
“Seeing other families who are in the same predicament lets you know that you’re not the only person out there who’s suffering,” he said.
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