Echoes of Em­mett Till case

Ge­orge Floyd’s killing by po­lice could be ‘tip­ping point’ in fight for jus­tice, like boy’s mur­der in 1955

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tribut­ing: Nathaniel Cary and Lily Al­tavena, USA TO­DAY Net­work

CHICAGO – As thou­sands of protests against the deaths of black men, women and chil­dren have bro­ken out across the coun­try in re­cent weeks, many black demonstrat­ors and faith lead­ers have in­voked the name of Em­mett Till to sug­gest the na­tion could be in the midst of a defin­ing mo­ment that could in­spire so­ci­etal shifts.

They say the de­gree of out­rage, na­tional mo­bi­liza­tion and in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion spurred by the hor­rific, vis­ceral record­ings of the deaths of Ah­maud Ar­bery, Bre­onna Tay­lor and Ge­orge Floyd could have a sim­i­lar cat­alyz­ing ef­fect as Till’s lynch­ing, which shocked the world’s con­science and gave birth to a gen­er­a­tion of civil rights ac­tivists.

“These two tragedies showed the tip­ping point of so­ci­ety,” said Ben­jamin Sauls­berry, mu­seum direc­tor at the Em­mett Till In­ter­pre­tive Cen­ter in Sum­ner, Mis­sis­sippi, and a na­tive of West Tal­la­hatchie County, of Till’s and Floyd’s deaths. “The Em­mett Till mur­der was not the first mur­der. There were so many others. But it was the tip­ping point.”

Till, a 14-year-old Chicago res­i­dent, was lynched in Au­gust 1955 while visit­ing fam­ily in Money, Mis­sis­sippi. Af­ter whistling at a white woman, Till was kid­napped by sev­eral white men, who tor­tured and killed him. His body was dis­cov­ered in the Tal­la­hatchie River, with a 74-pound cot­ton gin fan barb­wired to his neck.

Two men were later ac­quit­ted on mur­der charges, and a grand jury re­fused to in­dict them on kid­nap­ping charges. Years later, the white woman in­volved in the in­ci­dent said she had been ly­ing when she claimed Till had touched her.

Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mob­ley, forced the world to take a hard look at racism in the U.S. when she de­cided to hold a pub­lic, open cas­ket view­ing in Chicago. Over the course of four days, tens of thou­sands of men, women and chil­dren waited in line to view Till’s body.

Grace Hauck

Till-Mob­ley also gave per­mis­sion to the black press to pho­to­graph her son’s mu­ti­lated re­mains and cir­cu­late the images in black news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines.

“Be­cause his mother had the divine strength to choose to have an open cas­ket view­ing, it forced Amer­ica to see, for the first time, what Amer­i­can racism ac­tu­ally looked like,” Sauls­berry said.

The Rev. Jesse Jack­son would later call Till’s mur­der the “big bang” of the Civil Rights Move­ment. Mis­sis­sippi civil rights leader, Amzie Moore, called Till the cat­a­lyst for the move­ment. Rosa Parks said Till was on her mind the day she wouldn’t give up her seat on that Mont­gomery bus. His death spurred protests in big cities, as well as around the world, and drove a gen­er­a­tion of black Amer­i­cans to launch sitins to end Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion. It sparked a nine-year bat­tle for the Civil Rights Act.

His­tory in­vokes Em­mett Till

This isn’t the first time Till’s name – part of a long lin­eage of black Amer­i­cans dy­ing at the hands of po­lice and vig­i­lantes – has been in­voked dur­ing pe­ri­ods of up­ris­ings in the U.S. It was heard on the streets of Los An­ge­les in 1992, when demonstrat­ors protested the ac­quit­tal of four po­lice of­fi­cers ac­cused of beat­ing Rod­ney King. And in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, in 2014, when res­i­dents took to the streets to protest the fa­tal shoot­ing of Michael Brown at the hands of a white po­lice of­fi­cer.

And in re­cent weeks, pro­test­ers march­ing against the deaths of Arb ery, Tay­lor and Floyd have chanted Till’s name. Ar­bery, 25, was chased down and fa­tally shot by three white men while jog­ging near his Ge­or­gia home in Fe­bru­ary. Tay­lor, 26, was fa­tally shot by po­lice in March af­ter they en­tered her Louisville apart­ment as part of an al­leged nar­cotics in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Floyd, 46, died in Min­neapo­lis on Memo­rial Day when he was pinned to the ground by of­fi­cers af­ter be­ing ac­cused of pass­ing a fake $20 bill at a gro­cery store.

“Ge­orge Floyd dy­ing on TV with a knee on his neck was our Em­mett Till mo­ment where we see the bru­tal­ity and the lack of hu­man­ity that we can lit­er­ally not ig­nore any longer,” John Gray, pas­tor of Re­lent­less Church in Greenville, South Carolina, said to parish­ioners last week.

Others have made a sim­i­lar link. In Van­ity Fair, W. Ralph Eubanks, au­thor of “Ever is a Long Time: A Jour­ney Into Mis­sis­sippi’s Dark Past,” wrote: “There is a long bright line that con­nects Mamie Till-Mob­ley’s de­ci­sion to let the world see her son’s bat­tered body in the cas­ket – images of which Jet magazine pub­lished – to the videos of po­lice bru­tal­ity we have been see­ing on our screens, like the one of a Min­neapo­lis po­lice of­fi­cer killing Ge­orge Floyd.”

In a live-streamed ser­vice Sun­day in At­lanta, the Rev. Raphael Warnock put Till’s photo on the screen and spoke his name af­ter list­ing many of the black men and women at the cen­ter of po­lice bru­tal­ity protests. At a news con­fer­ence Tues­day in Min­neapo­lis, at­tor­ney Ben Crump – one of the lawyers rep­re­sent­ing the fam­i­lies of Ar­bery, Tay­lor and Floyd – listed the names of 20 African Amer­i­cans who died in en­coun­ters with po­lice and vig­i­lantes and called on view­ers to “take a breath for Em­mett Till.”

Crump’s list of names does not be­gin to ac­count for the num­ber of black lives lost to white vi­o­lence. More than 4,000 peo­ple were the vic­tims of racial ter­ror lynch­ings between 1877 and 1950, ac­cord­ing to the Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive – a Mont­gomery-based non­profit that ad­vo­cates for racial jus­tice – which de­fines ter­ror lynch­ings as “hor­rific acts of vi­o­lence whose per­pe­tra­tors were never held ac­count­able.” And more lives have been lost in “mod­ern-day lynch­ings” since that time.

The deaths of Till and Floyd, in par­tic­u­lar, have been “points of clar­ity” in a much longer sto­ry­line, said Amy Ye­boah, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of Africana stud­ies at Howard Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

“This has been a 400-year con­nect­the-dot pic­ture. In­stances have all con­nected in some form or fash­ion in help­ing us un­der­stand the hurt and pain of black peo­ple,” Ye­boah said.

Both mo­ments have been marked by the cir­cu­la­tion of hor­rific images of death, said Brandon Mar­cell Erby, who stud­ies the rhetor­i­cal work of Till-Mob­ley and re­cently earned a Ph.D. in English and African Amer­i­can and Di­as­pora Stud­ies at Penn­syl­va­nia State Univer­sity. Erby said he sees a par­al­lel in Till’s open cas­ket and pho­tos of Till’s body with the video ev­i­dence doc­u­ment­ing the deaths of Ar­bery and Floyd.

“Now, with the videos, we see the ex­hib­ited corpse,” Erby said.

Keith Beauchamp, whose doc­u­men­tary, “The Un­told Story of Em­mett Louis Till,” helped in­spire the Jus­tice Depart­ment to re­open the Till case in 2004, said he could bring him­self to watch the video of Floyd’s fi­nal mo­ments only once. The ubiq­ui­tous images of black death, re­play­ing again and again on Face­book and Twit­ter, have caused him racial fa­tigue.

“I’ve seen death time and time again with the work I do,” Beauchamp said. “But noth­ing has ever hit me harder than the im­age of Ge­orge Floyd. When I saw that im­age, it brought me back to when I first saw the pho­to­graph of Em­mett Till at the age of 10. And it was some­thing that I could not really wrap my head around. And I had the same re­ac­tion when I saw the of­fi­cer’s knee on Ge­orge Floyd’s neck.”

Beauchamp said see­ing Till’s photo drove him to pur­sue a life of civil rights work, and he wasn’t the only one.

Many of the found­ing mem­bers of the Stu­dent Non-Vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee, who led the sit-in move­ment, were young peo­ple around Till’s age who were spurred to get in­volved in civil rights work fol­low­ing his mur­der, said Davis Houck, co-au­thor of “Em­mett Till and the Mis­sis­sippi Press” and founder of the Em­mett Till Archive at Florida State Univer­sity.

Speak­ing in 1986 to Joseph Sin­sheimer, a Duke Univer­sity stu­dent who recorded oral his­to­ries of the Mis­sis­sippi civil rights move­ment, ac­tivist and SNCC mem­ber Joyce Lad­ner said Till’s lynch­ing left a “last­ing im­pres­sion” on her and peers in the “Em­mett Till gen­er­a­tion.” The photo of Till’s “grotesque body” was “em­bla­zoned in ev­ery­body’s mind,” Lad­ner said.

“For many peo­ple now, it’s go­ing to be that im­age of Ge­orge Floyd be­ing on the ground, suf­fo­cat­ing. That’s go­ing to be their in­spi­ra­tion to con­tinue the work,” Beauchamp said. “When we see the face of Ge­orge Floyd, it doesn’t take us far from the death of Em­mett Till. You can never dis­con­nect that.”

Be­yond the sym­bol­ism of both mo­ments, there are par­al­lels in the his­tor­i­cal con­text of each pe­riod, said Christo­pher Ben­son, a jour­nal­ist, lawyer and co-au­thor with Till-Mob­ley on her book “Death of In­no­cence.” When Till boarded the train to Mis­sis­sippi, he was headed to the Jim Crow-era South in the wake of Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion II, when the Supreme Court or­dered schools to de­seg­re­gate with “all de­lib­er­ate speed.” In the weeks be­fore his mur­der, two black men were lynched in Mis­sis­sippi.

“The death of Em­mett Till was a re­ac­tion to a fear among white peo­ple in the South to change that re­sulted from the le­gal strug­gle for equal­ity,” Ben­son said. “And now we have a fear of change once again – the new de­mo­graphic change on the hori­zon,” Ben­son said, ref­er­enc­ing the grow­ing per­cent­age of non­white peo­ple liv­ing in the U.S.

The role of na­tional me­dia at­ten­tion in each case is sim­i­lar, Ben­son said. Re­porters doc­u­mented Till’s mur­der, open cas­ket and trial (which Till-Mob­ley called a “farce”) in what then-West Point Daily Times Leader re­porter David Hal­ber­stam would later call the first “ma­jor me­dia event of the civil rights era.” Ma­jor news out­lets have now, sim­i­larly, of­fered “wall-to-wall” cover­age of the re­cent high-pro­file deaths, protests and le­gal de­vel­op­ments, Ben­son said. Sev­eral net­works broad­cast the first of many memo­rial ser­vices for Floyd in Min­neapo­lis on Thurs­day.

But there are also marked dif­fer­ences in the two mo­ments, his­to­ri­ans say. We’re liv­ing through a global pan­demic that has dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected com­mu­ni­ties of color, and peo­ple are si­mul­ta­ne­ously fear­ful of gath­er­ing in large groups but also “fed up” with struc­tural racism, now laid bare by the out­break, Sauls­berry said.

There are more black elected of­fi­cials in of­fice. There’s greater di­ver­sity in po­lice forces. But those forces aren’t just armed with clubs and dogs – they’re in full mil­i­tary gear, Ye­boah said.

De­vel­op­ments in tech­nol­ogy have given rise to so­cial me­dia cam­paigns and the Black Lives Mat­ter Move­ment while rais­ing ques­tions about who surveils and con­trols images of black bod­ies.

Too early to call it a turn­ing point

Some his­to­ri­ans ar­gue it’s too early to spec­u­late about the long-term con­se­quences of the cur­rent mo­ment.

“This is per­haps our Em­mett Till mo­ment,” Beauchamp said. “And I only say per­haps be­cause we’re in the first phase of ac­tion – hav­ing the abil­ity to protest. Now, af­ter we’ve protested, what are the next moves?”

Sixty-five years later, Till’s fam­ily is still wait­ing for jus­tice. The Depart­ment of Jus­tice is in­ves­ti­gat­ing his case. And anti-lynch­ing leg­is­la­tion in Till’s name, which passed the House in Fe­bru­ary, has stalled in Congress.

But there’s rea­son for hope. The cur­rent na­tion­wide mo­men­tum feels “much big­ger” and more per­va­sive than the be­gin­ning of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in 2013 and more akin to the move­ments of the 50s and 60s, Beauchamp said.

“This is the time – the defin­ing mo­ment of our lives,” Beauchamp said. “And this will set a prece­dent for where we’ll be in the next 100 years. I don’t think we get too many chances.”

Ye­boah said she’s hope­ful that this will be a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for racial jus­tice in the U.S.

“In my gut this feels dif­fer­ent,” Ye­boah said. “It’s a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion, a dif­fer­ent lan­guage, a dif­fer­ent ter­rain. The tech­nol­ogy is dif­fer­ent. The peo­ple are dif­fer­ent. It’s a dif­fer­ent time, so we may get a dif­fer­ent an­swer.”

JOSHUA L. JONES/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Em­mett Till

JOSHUA L. JONES/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Peo­ple gather in down­town Athens, Ga., on Satur­day for a “Jus­tice For Black Lives Rally” fol­low­ing the deaths of Ge­orge Floyd, Bre­onna Tay­lor and Ah­maud Ar­bery. Sim­i­lar ral­lies have swept across Amer­ica.

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