As many across the nation remain in shock and disbelief at the recent verdict in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, his case has become hauntingly reminiscent of another black teenager gunned down nearly 60 years ago, where his accusers also went forth free.
The murder of Emmett Till is just as relevant today as it was in 1955 when his death not only sparked an avalanche of public outrage and fear across the South. But it also gave courage and determination to the weary and downtrodden – now wiling to die for equal rights.
When A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized their monumental March on Washington for Aug. 28, 1963 – the same day Emmett Till was murdered – historians say that was not by coincidence. But it was because of Till that Aug. 28 was chosen.
The death of that 14-year-old boy eight years earlier was still fresh and burning in the heart and minds of Black America.
The notion that two white men from Mississippi could brutally torture and murder a young black boy – and get away with it – echoed the call for justice that many blacks had been sounding all along. Especially in the state of Mississippi.
Randolph and Rustin knew that.
And while the primary purpose of that march was to ensure civil, economic and voting rights for black people across the nation, Mississippi was at the fore being internationally criticized for their racially charged violence; their Jim Crow laws and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in their capital city on June 11, 1963.
Fifty years later, as thousands of people prepare to attend the anniversary of that historic march on Saturday, Aug. 24 – including the parents of Trayvon Martin – many believe Till’s death remains an integral part of the fight for civil rights.
“You can not talk about the March on Washington without Emmett Till,” said New York-based filmmaker Keith Beauchamp. “Because of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, everyone is summoning Emmett Till, bringing him back, speaking about him and comparing Trayvon Martin’s death to his.”
Beauchamp, producer of the award-winning film “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till”, is planning to attend the March on Aug. 24, and will show a screening of that film at a local venue in D.C. on Aug. 23.
An avid historian, Beauchamp currently has a series on the Investigation Discovery Channel entitled, “Injustice Files”, in which he investigates cold case murders from the civil rights movement.
“Many believe Emmett Till’s murder galvanized the modern day civil rights movement,” he said. “That’s why 1955 is so significant when you talk about the civil rights movement or the black resistance movement in the United States. Rustin understood that [Till‘s] was a shocking case and he was able to see people gathering together and fighting injustice. And he wanted that same type of feel with the March on Washington.”
Beauchamp said the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 “set up the atmosphere” for Till to be murdered. And two other killings in Mississippi – Rev. George Lee on May 7 and Lamar Smith on Aug. 13 – led to what some called the bloody summer of 1955.
Four months later, on Dec. 1, 1955, a humble NAACP worker in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her seat on a crowded bus, largely in part because of the recent murders in Mississippi.
“The real reason Rosa Parks didn’t get up from her seat that day wasn’t because she was tired like everyone wants you to believe,” Beauchamp said. “But it was because she had Emmett Till on her mind and she was tired of what was happening.”
Aside from being the inspiration behind Parks’ decision and the subsequent passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Till was also the reason the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) launched its Civil Rights Division.
“This was one of my major arguments to the federal authorities in getting Emmett Till’s murder case reopened,” Beauchamp said. “I said to them, ‘How can you not investigate a case that actually helped start the Civil Rights Division?’ But I never felt that Emmett Till‘s spirit would die. Metaphorically, it continues to come up in any generation when you talk about the injustice of young black men.”
Anthony Witherspoon, Chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee for the NAACP in Mississippi, agrees.
“I do see a correlation between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin,” he said. “It brings to question, ’What is the value of black life by our white brothers and sisters that we have to live with in this country?’ Because there does not seem to be the same type of effort to bring forth justice when black life is snuffed away in an obvious heinous and unjust way. Had Trayvon been white as everyone is saying, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Or if Zimmerman had been black and Trayvon was white, justice would have been swift and quick. Trayvon’s life to that jury had no more value than Emmett Till’s did to the jury that didn’t see the value of his life.”