Note: This post contains graphic images which may be upsetting for some readers.
It was 61 years ago this past weekend ― on August 28, 1955 ― that two white men, carrying guns, pulled 14-year-old Emmett Till out of his grandparents’ home in Money, Mississippi.
The teenager’s body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River three days later.
It was revealed that he had been severely beaten, his eye had been gouged out, and he had been shot in the head; then a 70-pound cotton gin fan was attached to his neck by barb wire and his body was thrown in the river.
The two men ― Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam ― who had pulled him out of the house were charged with kidnapping and murder.
The defendants were allowed to sit with their families, even bouncing toddlers on their lap while testimony was being given.
It took the all-white jury just one hour and seven minutes to find the men not guilty. One juror later said they would have come back with the verdict sooner if they had not stopped to get a pop; they wanted to stretch it out in order to make it look good.
One year later, both men admitted their guilt in a Look Magazine interview. Milam told the writer, William Bradford Huie, that their intentions were just to scare Till. Push him around a little, pistol whip him, and then let him go. But, Milam, said, Till took the whipping but remained unrepentant ― even told his persecutors that he was unafraid of them, and that he was just as good as them.
“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers ― in their place ― I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place.”
So Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam happily committed kidnapping, torture, and murder and got away with it.
Emmett Till, on the other hand, was murdered for the crime of... oh, that’s right, I didn’t say . . .
His alleged crime, was whistling at a white woman ― Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Till’s murderer Roy Bryant.
Emmett Till was killed before he could marry or have children, but writer Bernice McFadden ― author of 14 books including “Gathering of Waters,” a novel based on Till’s tragic demise ― maintains that he still has a long line of descendants.
Not necessarily related to him by a shared bloodline, she explains, but descendants nonetheless.
“His descendants are the hundreds of Black men and women who’ve had their lives taken by racist civilians and police officers in the sixty-one years since Emmett Till was murdered,” says McFadden, seen in the above video discussing “Gathering of Waters” ― which made The New York Times 100 Notable Books list ― at the Center for Fiction in New York.
Oh, let me assure you there was an outcry from the African-American community about Emmett Till’s lynching, of course. We’re soooo good at public outcries.
Don’t you think?
But, hmm, I wonder why rapper Lil Wayne felt so comfortable using Emmett Till’s name in a most vulgar way in a guest verse on fellow rapper Future’s 2013 song, Karate Chop. In the verse, which was pulled from the song by Epic Records before it went on sale in retail stores, Lil Wayne raps about his sexual prowess, and him “beating that pussy up like Emmett Till.”
Oh, of course he apologized ― a couple of weeks after there was a public outcry (there we go again!), but would he even have done it if we were really serious about we’ll never forget?
OK, let me bring up some sore points.
Remember 17-year-old Trayvon Martin? You should. He was killed in 2012, not some sixty years ago. He didn’t do anything as awful as whistling at a white woman. All he did was wear a hoodie in the rain while walking home after buying a package of Skittles.
His killer was identified, and was acquitted.
Yeah, public outcry. HUGE public outcry.
And yet, just a year later there was Tamir Rice. Wow, he was even younger than Till ― only 12-years-old! Shot by a Cleveland police officer while holding a toy gun. Thankfully his murderer was put on trial, found guilty and locked up.
Oh, wait a minute, he wasn’t.
“The point of remembering is to remind ourselves we don’t live in a colorblind society,” Sharlia Lebreton Gulley, a friend of my daughter, told me in a recent conversation.
To forget, continued Gulley ― a 27-year old postgraduate candidate at Florida International University ― is to run the risk “of drinking the kool-aid,” and pretending the murder of Tamir Rice had nothing to do with race.
“We’d starting thinking we really do have equal opportunities, and that black lives actually matter.”
I don’t know... but it seems that we really have that a great track record when it comes to remembering. The murders stay in the media, and in our minds for a few weeks, a few months ― and now, perhaps because of the Black Lives Matter movement, maybe even a few years.
But only a few years ― if that much.
When the Lil Wayne verse controversy occurred in 2013, I talked to about 20 people under the age of 30, but only seven of them knew who Emmett Till was, and, of those, only three thought it was a big deal that Lil Wayne associated his horrific death with sexual encounters.
Ironic, because Mamie Till Bradley, the murdered teenager’s mother, insisted on having an open-casket funeral, so that people around the country could see what the murderers had done to their son. Photos of his body were printed in African-American newspapers around the country, as well as in Ebony and Jet Magazine.
But you know how it is. After a while, we just forget.
Like we forgot about Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old lynched in Waco, Texas in 1916 after being found guilty of murdering a white woman ― though some have questioned the authenticity of his confession.
After the verdict was announced, a white mob of more than 500 men dragged him through the streets, and cut off his testicles before tying him to a tree. They then lowered him over a bonfire, and then raised him back up, only to lower him again.
They did this for two hours, while a crowd of about 15,000 cheered... though not quite loud enough to drown out Washington’s screams.
Lowering and raising him over the dancing flames. Lowering and raising him until his Black body was charcoal, and the screaming finally stopped. It took two hours for the screaming to stop.
And there were photographs! Some even made into postcards and sold as souvenirs.
An outraged W.E.B. Du Bois led the outcry (yes, even 100 years ago we were out crying. Oh! Uh, I mean, outcrying.), and ran the photographs in the Crisis Magazine, and like the Emmett Till lynching, the story and picture was picked up by newspapers around the country.
But, yeah, the 100-year anniversary of Mr. Washington’s lynching was just a few months ago, but it barely received a mention in either mainstream or social media. Even though the photograph is one of the most well-known lynching photos in American history.
Here it is. You’ve seen it before, haven’t you? I thought so.
So, yeah, we remember the photograph, but not the person killed who we keep vowing we’ll never forget.
I don’t know... is that our memories are really that bad?
Oh, maybe, it takes more than a long memory to bring about change?