Black History Month Retrospective…The Killing of Emmett Till

Emmett Till shares a happy moment with his mother, Mamie Till.
Emmett Till shares a happy moment with his mother, Mamie Till.

Officially known as the month of February, Black History Month has been set aside to remember the historical content of African Americans in this country. Down through the years it has been a celebratory time to acknowledge positive contributions of African Americans.

Images and portraits of great leaders and history makers such as Frederick Douglass, W.E. Dubois, Rosa Parks, Dr. Charles Drew, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall and others will be touted throughout schools, public libraries and cities as reminders of great achievements African Americans have made.

And well they should.

However, Black History Month should also be a time to really reflect on the many circumventive obstacles African Americans have had to overcome to be where they are today as a race and as a people.  It should also be a time to fully understand the history of subtle and overt racism, over-the-top bigotry, obstructionist race warfare and the nuances of discrimination that African Americans faced in the past and are still dealing with today.

While we’re celebrating the many wondrous strides we’ve made as a people, we shouldn’t lost sight on the horrendous slave trade that brought unwilling Africans to America in chains to live in bondage and servitude to their white masters. We shouldn’t lose focus on the fact that Ivy League schools such as Brown, Princeton and Harvard all made tons of money off of the backs of black slaves.

We shouldn’t obscure our view long enough to not see that Wachovia Bank, JP Morgan Chase Manhattan Bank and other financial institutions benefitted monetarily from the slave business as well. We shouldn’t lose sight on the time of oppression African Americans lingered in as second-class citizens here in the land of the free.

We can’t lose our vision on remembering the reign of terror ushered by the White Citizens Council and Ku Klux Klan on African American families throughout the Deep South.

We can’t forget the countless innocent black men and women lynched unmercifully at the whelm of whites who often held lynching parties while these individuals draped helplessly at the stake as they burned and/or had body parts dismembered. We shouldn’t forget that African Americans were once declared three-fifths of a human being in the original U.S. Constitution.

We must not forget that the only reason people are celebrating the famed Tuskegee Airmen today is that President Franklin Roosevelt had to issue an executive order to give African Americans the opportunity to show they could be just as equal as their white peers as aviators in the military.

Otherwise, longtime filmmaker George Lucas would not have had the privilege to make “Red Tails,” an inspiring movie about the black airmen.

We can’t lose sight on how African Americans had to fight for the right to vote. We can’t lose sight on how many of our African American leaders have been both widely ostracized and denounced or had their lives cut short because of standing up for equality and fairness.

The aftermath of hate crime left Emmett Till’s body unrecognizable.

Just about every step of progress African Americans have made in this country has usually been preceded by a period or an event of unequal treatment and unjust social pain. The hideous and unfathomable murder of Emmett Till was one of those incidents.

As racist Jim Crow laws abounded, laws that fiercely divided the country, 14-year-old Till was ripped away from a relative’s home in the middle of the night by two white men in the hot summer month of August 1955. What was left of Till’s body, which was shot up, plundered and bludgeoned beyond recognition, was later found in a Mississippi river.

Back during that time a black man was basically forbidden to look upon a white woman, let alone whistle at one. Till presumably was accused of both in the eyes of his killers. Till’s alleged crime was presumed to be eyeballing and flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a white grocer. The woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and another man, J.W. Milam, allegedly would confess to the murder of Till to a reporter.

Despite the publication of that confession, neither Bryant nor Milam saw the bars of a prison cell.

The American justice system failed black America regarding this hideous incident as it has so many times. The unfortunate death of Till prompted a new attitude in African Americans. The outrage and fallout from Till’s murder became a rallying point for blacks to begin to stand up to the unruly and unjust laws in which they were forced to obey, despite being treated as entities lower than a dog.

Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, gave African Americans the ammunition it needed to move to action when she allowed the devastated body of her son to be shown to the world in an open casket funeral. But what happened to Till was not an abbreviation.

Many black families failed to see justice come to fruition when loved ones had their lives snuffed out unapologetically, and watched their white killers being exonerated of the crimes by all-white juries. What made Till’s death so significance in the history books was that America got an up close view of itself.

Till’s open funeral put America’s consciousness on full notice. The nation’s ugly face of racism and bigotry was on full display for the world to see. America could no longer hide its dirty laundry. A mother’s pain was felt. Her grief spilled and tugged its way into this country’s soul. Thousands showed up for Till’s funeral. Till’s death was not in vain as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement began to get its footing.

It is because of the ultimate price paid by Till and countless others that we do not forget where we came from.

 

 

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1105 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.