Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till and the shadow of Jim Crow justice

The mood following the verdict in the case of Florida v. George Zimmerman is not politics as usual.

While some are touting Zimmerman’s court victory as a win for gun rights, and others wonder what all the fuss is about, there are millions of others who are in mourning.

Many African-Americans are mourning not only the loss of a seventeen-year-old boy on his way home from the store, but mourning for all our boys. Grieving because we no longer know what to tell our children, fearing who might be tracking their footsteps if they walk freely in the world.

Black America in ‘mourning’

So when I think about this process of mourning, I think immediately of another moment of mourning a boy killed in the deep South almost sixty years ago.

In the summer of 1955 Emmett Till was just 14 years old when his mother, Mamie Till, sent him south to Money, Mississippi to spend the summer with his uncle, Mose Wright, and his young cousins.

So Till, who had been born in Chicago, was a bit out of place and out of step with the racial mores in Mississippi. The rules of Jim Crow insisted on a strict etiquette of submission on the part of black people, particularly black men and black boys. Under the threat of lynch law, black men and boys were expected never to have any kind of personal flirtations or sexual relationships with white women. Such unwritten proscriptions were so strict that most black men and boys were expected never even to look directly at a white woman, or otherwise be perceived as being too sexually forward.

It was this myth of the black male rapist that undergirded the extra-legal lynchings of black people in the American South. One 1899 lynching victim’s corpse was decorated with a placard that read, “We must protect our Southern White Women” even though the victim had not assaulted any woman.

It was this dangerous climate that Till entered in the summer of 1955. His mother had warned him not to even look at a white woman or girl, she had insisted that he call any white person ma’am or sir in order to avoid trouble. She did not tell her son about these warnings because she believed they were right, but rather she sought to protect her son from the harm that could have easily come his way in the segregated South.

But one afternoon, Till traveled into town to buy sweets and soda with his friends and cousins, and seemingly violated one of the unwritten rules and whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the store-owner. Bryant reported the incident to her husband, Roy. Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam later recounted that they kidnapped, brutally tortured, and then shot Till in the head. They disposed of his body in the Tallahatchie River, tying a cotton gin fan to his neck with barbed wire.