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n August 1955, Emmett Till travelled from Chicago to spend time with his family in rural Mississippi. If asked, he would have called himself a Negro, the respectful term then for people of African descent. He was 14 years old, a sharp dresser with a sweet smile, a little chubby, and devoted to his widowed mother. His nickname was Bobo. During his visit he discovered that he did not like picking cotton. He doubtless found the Jim Crow laws and customs puzzling, or even funny. Back home Bobo attended integrated schools; in Mississippi, Negroes were not supposed to look white people in the eye or touch them, although Negroes cooked, cleaned, and did laundry for white folks. Negroes were supposed to call even the meanest whites “sir” or “ma’am,” and to step off the sidewalk to let them pass.
One evening Bobo and his cousins drove to Bryant’s Grocery And Meat Market, the only store for miles around, to buy candy, chewing gum, perhaps some cold sodas. Accounts vary as to what happened when Bobo entered the store and addressed the white proprietress, but the most convincing story is that he touched Mrs. Bryant’s hand when he paid for his purchase, and called “Bye, baby!” to her as he left the store. Carolyn Bryant found this outrageous enough to head to her car to fetch a pistol. Till, still oblivious to his danger, whistled at her. His terrified cousins hustled him to their car and drove as fast as they could to escape the wrath that was sure to come.
Mrs. Bryant did not shoot Bobo, or tell her husband about the incident. Someone else did.
Three nights later, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. “Big” Milam abducted young Till at gunpoint from his great-uncle’s home. With the help of at least two other white men they took him to a remote barn where they beat him viciously, knocking out teeth and one eye, breaking his skull, and finally shooting him. They tied a heavy gin fan to his neck with barbed wire and threw his body into the river. Witnesses heard the beating and the screams, saw one of the half-brothers drive a truck out of the barn with something covered by a tarp in back, and later saw someone washing blood from the truck bed.
Roy Bryant and Big Milam were arrested, eventually, sort of, by a police officer who was a friend of theirs. While they were in jail they were allowed conjugal visits with their wives and Sunday dinners at home with their extended families, and then they were released without bond. Their trial by an all-white, all-male jury is one of the most extensively documented miscarriages of justice in modern history. They were found not guilty, and the world took notice. Because the Emmett Till lynching and trial were so hideous and so obviously unfair, they became a flash point for the next two decades of the Civil Rights Movement.
In late February 2012 another handsome teenager of African descent was visiting family in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon Martin was not very far from home, visiting his father’s fiancée; his parents were divorced, but he was on loving terms with both of them. Tray was 17, a junior in high school, an accomplished athlete, and possessed of a beautiful smile. He was the kind of kid who would walk out in the rain to buy candy for his little brother, and that’s what he did on the last night of his life. Tray didn’t sass the cashier or do anything else to draw attention to himself, but he caught the eye of an overzealous and armed Community Watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, ten years his senior and twice his weight. Zimmerman was angry about recent break-ins in the community and decided on sight that Tray was a suspect.
Zimmerman reported Trayvon Martin as a suspicious character because he was wearing a hoodie – in the rain – and walking slowly, perhaps enjoying a few minutes to himself. The police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow Martin, and not to leave his vehicle to confront him. Ignoring both those instructions and the rules for Community Watch, Zimmerman chased Tray on foot and engaged in a fist fight with him, resulting in a bloody nose for Zimmerman. According to the just-released 911 calls, neighbors reported a fight and someone calling for help. Then a gunshot, wailing, a second gunshot, then silence. Zimmerman told police that he called out for help, but witnesses are sure it was Trayvon calling out. Tray was dead from a shot to the chest when police arrived.
A little store. Candy. The murder of a black teenaged boy by a white man or men. Surely that is all these stories have in common. Surely in 56 years our society has learned something from the lynching of Emmett Till.
Zimmerman claims self-defense in shooting an unarmed child. At the time of this writing, weeks after Trayvon’s death, Zimmerman has still not been arrested or charged. Immediately after the killing he was taken into custody, questioned briefly, and released. Apparently a dead African-American youth on the ground is not probable cause for arrest in Seminole County, Florida, in 2012.
The case has now been turned over to Florida’s Attorney General, and the investigation continues. Confessed killer Zimmerman is still free. How far have we come since 1955? Not far enough.