It was 57 years ago that the nation was shocked and repulsed by the images of a Black teenager who was in his coffin, severely disfigured as a result of his being beaten, having his eyes gouged and having been shot in the head. He was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he walked into a small grocery store where he allegedly whistled at the white woman behind the counter.
The woman’s husband, along with another man, found the young Black teenager. After killing him, they left his body in the Tallahatchie River, where it remained for three days before it was found. The killers were arrested but were acquitted of any wrongdoing by the white Mississippi jury.
Although that took place decades ago, the death of Emmett Till has very much been invoked in recent weeks as the national outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin has amplified dramatically.
In the world of Jim Crow era America, the murder of Emmett Till was the fulcrum for a national discussion about segregation, law enforcement and the brutality that young Black men face.
Similarly, the recent murder of the unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, killed by an overzealous neighborhood watch vigilante, has galvanized the attention of the nation. It raises questions again about the vulnerability of Black youth to racially tinged violence. It also places a spotlight on the disparity in the justice system, and the stark difference between how Black and white suspects are treated.
Emmett Till’s killers were acquitted by an all-white jury. Trayvon Martin’s killer hasn’t even been arrested. That is partly a function of an outlandish law, pushed by the National Rifle Association, that allows people to use deadly force against anyone whom they perceive as a threat. It is nothing short of a state-sanctioned license for people to engage in vigilante lawlessness.
But the other troubling aspect of the Trayvon Martin police scenario is the breathtaking ineptitude of the law enforcement officials in the Orlando suburb of Sanford, Florida. They allowed George Zimmerman, the white killer (with a Hispanic mother), to claim he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense and to walk away from the police station without doing basic drug testing.
More than anything, the Trayvon Martin case reflects the same horror that many Americans felt a generation ago through the ghastly murder of Emmett Till. There is the terror of a Black teenager, with all the promise of a fulfilling life, cut off before he even reaches manhood.
As a result of the 911 recordings that were released — after the family threatened to sue the police department in Sanford to produce them — the world now knows that Zimmerman was virtually stalking Trayvon Martin, saying that the young man looked suspicious and that “he’s Black.” But the recordings also point to a possible racial epithet used in his commentary about Trayvon Martin when speaking with the police.
And therein lies the crux of the sad, historic legacy of race and ethnicity in the United States. Until this nation begins to see Black youth as people whose lives should be the object of investment and encouragement rather than lawless marauders, until the country learns critical lessons from the fate of Trayvon Martin, America will not see the last of this wretched calamity.
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