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

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

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The bravery of Mamie

Although two black witnesses, including Till’s uncle Mose Wright came forward to tie Bryant and Milam to the killing, Till’s mother, Mamie Till was also called to the stand in the show trial against Emmett Till’s killers to identity her son’s body. The defense accused Till of being at the center of an elaborate conspiracy working with the NAACP to use another dead body to stir up trouble in Mississippi. The trial was a foregone conclusion.  The jury of all white men quickly railroaded through a not guilty verdict lest they fail to protect white womanhood.

But the trial only came after Mamie Till publicized her son’s murder by holding an open casket public viewing of her son’s mutilated and distended body. News of Till’s murder reached a national and international audience when pictures of Till’s corpse were published in Jet magazine. Many of the thousands who attended the public viewing and millions who read of his killing demanded that a trial take place.

So it would be Mamie Till, despite her personal grief over the death of her son, who would take the story of the case further, demanding that federal authorities bring charges in the case after Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing in the pages of Look magazine. It would be a national mourning that made the Till case a touchstone for a generation that had been encouraged by progress in the push for civil rights, and yet devastated by a blatant miscarriage of justice in a southern court.

Pride in Trayvon Martin’s parents

This time we are mourning for a boy from Miami, visiting his father in Sanford, Florida, unaware of the racial terrain in a neighborhood with some crime and an overzealous neighborhood watchman, driven by assumptions. While I am almost sure Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton, talked with him about being cautious and respectful if approached by the police, I’m sure none of their advice prepared him for being followed by George Zimmerman.

We are mourning because Martin’s death at the end of Zimmerman’s gun was initially dismissed by the police as a “Stand Your Ground” case of self-defense, Florida’s version of an ALEC-sponsored law that, unlike most self-defense laws does not require that self-defense is the last resort of someone who cannot escape the altercation. We are mourning that any fistfight might turn into justifiable homicide.

We are proud that Martin’s parents had the courage to publicize their son’s death in order to push for a trial, but we are mourning because unequal justice still seems to be the norm. We are disheartened because we know a Florida woman, Marissa Alexander, is not allowed to stand her ground against an ex-husband with a documented history of abuse, but Zimmerman was found by the court to be justified in believing he needed to kill an unarmed stranger.

And sadly, despite all the changes that have occurred over the past five decades, many of us are mourning, worried about what we should tell to our children that might just keep them safe, as if some set of behaviors could prevent them from being perceived as a threat. We mourn for all our boys.

But like Mammie Till, we must not stay in this place of sorrow. We must take heart and, like Mammie Till, demand that federal action take place when a state fails to make the case. Like the Till generation we must make sure that Trayvon Martin’s death is a not just another story about black men killed in unjust circumstances. We must remember them all as we move to make this tragedy into a catalyst for making this a freer and safer nation for all Americans.

Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley