A Longer Look at the Emmett Till-Trayvon Martin Comparison

The "not guilty" verdict acquitting George Zimmerman from criminal charges in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is scary for any number of reasons. Most of all because it reminds us that a racial era we hoped was over is not.
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The "not guilty" verdict acquitting George Zimmerman from criminal charges in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is scary for any number of reasons. Most of all because it reminds us that a racial era we hoped was over is not.

In the Zimmerman case we have an eerie historical link to the notorious trial of the two men who in 1955 murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager visiting his relatives in Mississippi. Comparisons between the two cases have been drawn in a number of newspapers in recent days, but the link between the cases is a much deeper one than the comparisons suggest. At issue is not just the South and its past but who draws the boundaries that divide us as a society.

In Martin's case the outward boundaries he crossed were geographic. On his way home with candy and a soft drink, he passed through a townhouse complex where he was an unfamiliar figure to George Zimmerman, who had a history of repeatedly calling the police in Sanford, Florida, to report those he saw as threats. In Zimmerman's eyes Martin was, as he characterized him in his call, one of those "punks" who "always get away."

In Till's case the outward boundaries he crossed were verbal. Till and his cousin, both from the South Side of Chicago, were in rural Mississippi visiting family when they ran into trouble. On a dare from one of the teens he was talking with outside a local country store, Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, Till was goaded into talking back to the white woman running the store. "Bye, Baby," he allegedly said to Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Roy Bryant, the store owner after buying candy from her.

Roy Bryant was out of town at the time of the incident, but when he returned three days later, he was told what had happened by his brother-in-law, J. W. Milam. The two set out to put Till in his place, and at midnight they showed up where Till was staying, the home of his cousin's grandfather, Mose Wright. Wright, understanding the seriousness of what had happened, begged the men to give Till a good whipping and stop at that, but his pleas were ignored.

Till was found days later in the Tallahatchie River, his body badly beaten and wrapped in barbed wire. A cotton-gin fan had been tied around his neck in an effort to keep him from floating.

As in the Martin case, the protest from outside the town in which the killing occurred was much louder than the local protest. Till's mother insisted that her son's body be returned to Chicago and not buried in Mississippi as the sheriff wanted. The result was a national horror. Till had been shot in the head, and one of his eyes had been badly gouged. The open casket that Till's mother insisted upon made her son's injuries available for all to see.

At the trial none of the violence made a difference, nor did the testimony of Mose Wright, who identified Bryant and Milan as the men he saw take Till away. In just over an hour, an all-white jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict.

Months later, Bryant and Milan, knowing they could not be retried, told Alabama journalist William Bradford Huie exactly what they did in exchange for a fee of $4,000 ($3,000 for them and $1,000 for their lawyer). Huie's article, "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi," appeared in the January 1956 issue of Look magazine.

We are a long way from the crudities of the Emmett Till trial. The jury in the Zimmerman case took 16 hours over the course of two days to reach its verdict, and today, the Justice Department has the authority to act if it can be shown that a civil rights violation took place in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

What we can't get away from, though, is how the sequence of events that led to Till's and Martin's deaths began with the two teenage boys failing to accept their "assigned" social place without realizing what a threat that posed. After that line was crossed, everything else followed.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of 'Like A Holly Crusade: Mississippi 1964 -- The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.'

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