Today marks what would have been the 72nd birthday of Emmett Till, the African-American boy whose tragic death became a landmark moment in the history of racial tensions in America.
Till’s murder in 1955 was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement and his story received considerable national attention for decades to come.
Till, who was born on July 25, 1941, was 14 years old when he was lynched in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a white woman. He had traveled from his hometown of Chicago to visit his relatives in the South when two white men arrived at his family’s home and dragged him out at gunpoint.
His death was the result of numerous violent acts that followed. He was beaten, shot and an eye, an ear and most of his teeth were gouged out before his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, weighed down by a 70-pound cotton gin.
Hundreds attended the open casket funeral, which was a decision made by Till’s mother who hoped to bring more attention to her son’s death by displaying his mutilated body and the brutal crimes committed against him.
Two of Till’s abductors, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were tried in court and were ultimately acquitted of kidnapping and murder – although they later admitted to the crimes in a magazine interview.
Witness to Till crime recently passes away
One of the last living witnesses to the kidnapping was Willie Louis, a black man who heard Till’s screams from inside a Mississippi barn. Louis passed away on July 18th and his death was announced on Wednesday.
Louis testified in the trial and recounted the night he heard “somebody hollering” – but shortly after Bryant and Milam’s acquittal, he was smuggled out of Mississippi and went to Chicago for safety. Upon moving, he was placed under police protection and changed his last name. He was formerly known as Willie Reed.
For years, Louis never mentioned that night again – it was not until 2004 that he rehashed the topic during a 60 Minutes interview and said that he “heard his screaming and beating.”
Till’s murder was, and still is, a key event in black history that reflected the violence crimes perpetrated against blacks during the mid-20th century.
Now, more than 50 years later, many see similarities between Till’s story and the case of Trayvon Martin – another teen who was shot and killed by a non-black man, George Zimmerman.
After a weeks-long trial, Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the death of the 17-year-old Martin, which inspired a series of nationwide protests.
Emmett Till vs. Trayvon Martin
Both cases are a clear reflection of the race relations in America and a defining moment for their time. While the details of Till’s and Martin’s case remain unsettling to some, it has undoubtedly weighed the heaviest on the hearts of their parents.
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton – Martin’s parents – were present every day of the Zimmerman trial and have expressed their frustration and disappointment in the aftermath of the verdict.
Now, they remain as the central figures in a case that has become a rallying cry for activists across the nation.
As for Till’s mother, Mamie Till, her struggles in moving past her son’s death ended once she passed away in 2003 from heart failure. However, during her lifetime she made great effort to bring national awareness to the racial prejudice that resulted in her son’s death.
She once said, “People really didn’t know that things this horrible could take place. And the fact that it happened to a child, that makes all the difference in the world.”
Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works