All I knew about Emmett Till was the image of his bloated figure in that coffin. I think I saw it in an article in one of the magazines we had in the house at the time. His mother was standing next to him looking down on his lifeless body with a countenance that openly displayed her heartache – as open as the casket in which her son lay.
It was an image that stuck with me for a long time. It scared me – I would even say it left a scar on my psyche. I never said anything about it because in my young mind, the mere mention of it would make me feel as if the same thing might happen to me. My mother briefly spoke about the backstory to his murder but I don’t think a single word registered. I was too focused on that gruesome, awful photo. Was that really a little boy? How could a human do something like that to another human, I thought – so grizzly was the image.
Years later, I thought of Emmett Till when Trayvon Martin was murdered. Trayvon’s murder was under different circumstances but just like Till, his murderer was found not guilty. I say Trayvon like I knew him. I think we all knew him. When I thought of Trayvon, I thought of my nephew. PJ must have been about 13 at the time – one year younger than Emmett’s last. You may have thought of your son. Or your daughter; your cousin; your neighbor.
I also think we all knew Emmett. The young brother was never interviewed. No one ever got his side of the story. All that mattered was that a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, said that he whistled at her, grabbed her by the waist and uttered obseneties – and that was justification enough for his death. All that mattered was that George Zimmerman said Trayvon looked suspicious and that was justification enough for his death.
When I spoke of Trayvon, I spoke with a sadness, an anger, a fire that did not want to be doused…that is until tears welled up on the bottom of my eyes unexpectedly, like an unwelcomed guest knocking at my front door but quickly being turned away. Was this the America for which I was fighting in America’s beloved Marine Corps? Regardless, this was the America that Americans were most familiar with – an America that would criminalize a young Black teenager and somehow justify his murder. That was the America that their fathers and forefathers knew and loved.
It was an America that enjoyed the economic prosperity that slavery provided and at the same time ignored the slaves’ contribution to the American dream, shamelessly denying them the opportunity to benefit from the sweat of their own brow – then having the gall to say pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It was an America that proudly said all men are created equal yet considered Blacks 3/5 of a human. Brutes. It was an America that claimed to be a melting pot for everyone but blatantly segregated Blacks from whites as if to say, “Except for y’all.” An America that could kill Black men, women, and children then tell you to “get over it.”
Yes. Sadly, this was the America for which I suited up every day. Camouflaged into a background of feigned justice that did not exist for everyone of its citizens. The same people who would extend an oft-rehearsed “Thank you for your service” were some of the same ones who contributed to Trayvon’s murderer’s defense fund. I am certain there were some Marines who did the same. This was the America I served.
Jury at trial of Bryant and Milam, 1955. (Library of Congress)
It was an America where an all-white, all-male jury could take a little over one hour (67 minutes to be exact) to find Emmett Till’s murderers not guilty and allow them to continue living their lives in the comfort of fruited plains and waves of grain. Prior to the trial, $10,000 was collected for the defense – locals galvanizing to ensure the most deplorable of their white privilege remained imperforate. If ever there were a foregone conclusion to a trial, this was it. To refer to it as a trial was simply a formality. Not guilty. Like nothing happened. As if it were ok. That’s because it was…and still is in many cases.
But there was one catch.
We often hear about the courage of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till. She decided to allow his body for viewing as opposed to a closed casket. But she wasn’t the only courageous one in the family. Till’s murderers said they didn’t set out to kill the young teenager, they just wanted to scare him. But he wouldn’t show any fear. They stripped him of his clothes but he was still defiant. Emmett didn’t yell or scream when being beaten over the head with the same pistol that would be used to kill him a short while later. He didn’t want to give them the satisfaction. To add further insult, his last words were, “You bastards! I’m not afraid of you! I’m just as good as you are!” In the face of death, he didn’t budge. Those words and actions bothered his captors even more than the murder they were about to commit.
I like to think that he said Fuck you. You’re going to have to kill me.
He was then shot in the head and thrown into the Tallahatchie River, a cotton gin fan attached to his neck by barbed wire.
The Department of Justice has decided to reopen the case. Forgive me if I have my suspicions of the DOJ, however well-intentioned this reexamination of evidence may be disguised. If history has taught me anything, it has been to take heed of it. Bryant, the only liar remaining, should be sentenced to death for her false accusations that led to Till’s murder. The other accomplices – her husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam – have long been dead. Nothing short of that sentence will be acceptable. Trayvon never made it home. Hopefully Emmett finally will. Even then, there will still be an irreplaceable void.
Emmett Till would have been 77 years old this year; Trayvon Martin 23 but their spirits live on. I will remember their strength when it seems like the fight is tougher than expected. I would hope that others will, too. One was fourteen, the other seventeen but their resolve is ageless. They’ll never truly kill you, my beautiful young brothers.
We won’t allow them to.