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“How Emmett Till Changed The World”: The Brutal Lynching Of A Black Teen In Mississippi Helped Shape The Civil-Rights Movement

Before Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, there was Emmett Till.

Till, a 14-year-old Chicago native, was brutally beaten and lynched while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, in the summer of 1955.

His crime? Allegedly whistling at a white woman.

This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the tragic murder of Emmett Till. There will be commemorative events honoring the life of the young teen in Chicago and Mississippi. And that’s because, according to Chris Benson, associate professor of African American studies and journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Till’s death still resonates today.

“The reason we are so captivated by the lynching of Emmett Till 60 years later is that it’s justice that has not been reached. It grates against our sense of justice in America that this horrible event has never been resolved,” says Benson, who co-authored the book, Death of Innocence with Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley. “We see so many similar cases coming up in the contemporary moment that remind us of the injustice in the Emmett Till case. When we see the case of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Tamir Rice, where young Black males are shot down by authority figures and nobody’s punished, it reminds us of the most celebrated case where a Black teen was killed and nobody was brought to justice.”

History notes that Till was with a group of teenagers who had stopped at a local grocery store to buy snacks when he broke Mississippi’s racial code of conduct. Just a year earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had announced separate but equal schools were unconstitutional in the historic Brown v. Board of education case. But things were still done a little differently in Mississippi. The state fought against any interruption in its system of segregation and often resorted to violence.

So it was in this space that four days after his alleged “crime,” Till was kidnapped in the wee hours of the morning on August 28, 1955 by two white men, Roy Bryant, husband of Carolyn Bryant, the store clerk Till allegedly whistled at, and J.W. Milam.

Bryant and Milan tortured Till for hours. He was brutally beaten. Barbed wire tied around his neck. He was shot in the head. The young teen was weighted with a cotton gin fan and thrown in the Tallatchie River. Three days later, Till’s bloated body surfaced, his face severely disfigured. He was identified by a ring on his finger, one his mother had given him that had his father’s initials.

When Till’s body arrived in Chicago, Mamie Till Mobley couldn’t believe her eyes. She wanted to show the world what Mississippi had done to her son, her only child. Mobley demanded an open-casket at Till’s funeral. His mutilated body was on display for five days as more than 100,000 folks lined the streets of Chicago to get a glimpse of what hate could do. The graphic images were published in Jet magazine and Black newspapers. Her decision changed the course of history.

“Opening that casket and allowing Emmett Till’s body to lay in state allowed people to witness the horrible face of race hatred,” said Benson. “It horrified people to the extent that they had never seen anything like this and to imagine that our children could be subjected to such horrors really moved people. So opening the casket opened our eyes to the injustice in this country and the consequences of that continued injustice if we didn’t do something about it.”

But justice would never come.

It took just little more than an hour for an all-white male jury to acquit Bryant and Milam of the murder of Emmett Till. Months later, Look magazine paid Bryant and Milam $4,000 so they would reveal how they killed the Chicago teen.

The fact that two white men were not convicted of murdering a young Black boy was not surprising in 1955 Mississippi. But what was surprising was the bravery and courage of Till’s uncle Mose Wright, who stood up during the trial and pointed to Bryant and Milam as the men who had kidnapped Till. It was nearly unheard of for a Black man to oppose a white man in court. In doing so, Wright put his own life in danger and immediately left Mississippi soon after.

“Understanding the context in the South at that time, for him to do that was nothing short of courageous,” says Paula Johnson, law professor and co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University. The initiative investigates racially-motivated murders that occurred during the civil rights era.

Two months after Milam and Bryant were acquitted for the murder of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, sparking the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and the beginning of a Civil Rights Movement led by a young minister by the name of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The fight for civil rights, which had mostly been a legal strategy up until that time, had become a mass movement. Soon after there were Freedom Rides, sit-ins at lunch counters, boycotts, demonstrations, and marches. And all of this can be traced back to Emmett Till.

“As we talk about Black Lives Matter, this is what Mamie Till Mobley was saying to us—‘My son’s life matters,’” says Johnson. “Till was not the first lynching but it was a defining moment in so many ways. Emmett Till’s murder galvanized an activist movement of that which continues today.”

Indeed, during the Movement for Black Lives conference in Cleveland this summer, activists of the Black Lives Matter movement honored the families of civil rights martyrs. The first image was of Emmett Till.

Airickca Gordon-Taylor, cousin of Emmett Till and president of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, spoke at the Movement for Black Lives conference. She says Till kicked off the Black Lives Matter movement and noted that he was “a sacrificial lamb.”

“There are so many parallels today to what happened in 1955 and if we’re not careful all of our rights will be stripped away again,” Gordon-Taylor told The Daily Beast. “We have to be very diligent and very mindful and we have to come together as a community to work towards putting people in positions and roles that have our best interests at heart to work toward changing these policies.”

The Justice Department re-opened Till’s case in 2004. His body was exhumed and an autopsy was conducted but it was closed three years later due to the statute of limitations and insufficient evidence. But though no one was ever convicted for the murder of Emmett Till, his name will be forever associated with the fight for justice and civil rights. His life will not be forgotten. In fact, there are several movies being made about Emmett Till. A film based on Benson’s book will begin production next year, and it was recently announced that Jay-Z and Will Smith will produce a movie about Till for HBO.

“In so many ways, the case of Emmett Till was the first Black Lives Matter case,” says Benson. “Emmett Till is certainly a story about racial injustice. It’s a story about white supremacy. But within those elements is a recognition that this is really a story about power. Emmett Till was killed as an expression of power—power over the black body. We have to ask: What might had he been if he had lived?”

 

By: Lottie L. Joiner, The Daily Beast, August 28, 2015

August 30, 2015 Posted by | Emmett Till, Racial Justice, Racism | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“It’s About Treating Where It Hurts”: ‘All Lives Matter’ — Words Of Moral Cowardice

This is a column about three words of moral cowardice:

“All lives matter.”

Those words have risen as a kind of counter to “Black lives matter,” the movement that coalesced in response to recent killings and woundings of unarmed African-Americans by assailants — usually police officers — who often go unpunished. Mike Huckabee raised that counter-cry last week, telling CNN, “When I hear people scream ‘black lives matter,’ I’m thinking, of course they do. But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another.”

As if that were not bad enough, the former Arkansas governor and would-be president upped the ante by adding that Martin Luther King would be “appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”

“Elevating some lives.” Lord, have mercy.

Imagine for a moment that you broke your left wrist. In excruciating pain, you rush to the emergency room for treatment only to run into a doctor who insists on examining not just your mangled left wrist, but your uninjured right wrist, rib cage, femur, fibula, sacrum, humerus, phalanges, the whole bag of bones that is you. You say, “Doc, it’s just my left wrist that hurts.” And she says, “Hey, all bones matter.”

If you understand why that remark would be factual, yet also fatuous, silly, patronizing and off point, then you should understand why “All lives matter” is the same. It’s not about “elevating some lives” any more than it would be about elevating some bones. Rather, it’s about treating where it hurts.

And as for Dr. King: I cringe at his name being invoked by yet another conservative who has apparently never heard or read anything King said with the possible exception of the last few minutes of the “I Have A Dream” speech. No one with the slightest comprehension of what King fought for could seriously contend he would be “appalled” at a campaign geared to the suffering of African-American people.

Whose rights did the Montgomery bus boycott seek to vindicate? For whose freedom was King jailed in Birmingham, punched in Selma and stoned in Chicago? In his book Why We Can’t Wait, King answered complaints that we shouldn’t be doing something special for “the Negro” by noting that, “our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.”

Does that sound like someone who’d be “appalled” by “Black lives matter”?

No, that cry would likely resonate for him for the same reason it resonates for so many others. Namely because, while police abuse is not unknown in other lives, it is disproportionate in black lives. This is what Huckabee and the “All lives matter” crowd quail at recognizing. To treat where it hurts, one must first acknowledge that it still hurts, something conservatives often find hard to do because it gives the lie to their self-congratulatory balloon juice about how this country has overcome its founding sin.

That sort of willful ignorance has unfortunately become ubiquitous.

Which is why, for me, at least, the most inspiring sight to come out of Charleston following the racial massacre there was not the lowering of the Confederate battle flag, welcome as that was. Rather, it was a march through town by a mostly white crowd chanting, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” To see those white sisters and brothers adopt that cry was a soul-filling reminder that at least some of us still realize we all have access — connection — to each other’s pain and joy by simple virtue of the fact that we all are human.

God love them, they did not slink guiltily from that connection. Instead, they ran bravely to it.

And you know what, Mike Huckabee? Martin Luther King would have been pleased.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, August 24, 2015

August 25, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Mike Huckabee, Racial Justice | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Strange Justice”: A Victory For Right-Wing Ideology, But A Profound And Deep Loss For Racial Justice

Yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of one of the great wrong turns in American civil-rights history, a grotesque decision that helped those who falsely and nonsensically believe that eliminating federal efforts to establish racial equality will somehow, in and of itself, establish racial equality. The horror of that day still reverberates, the pain of that moment still sears.

On June 12, 1995, the United States Supreme Court, in a ghastly 5-4 decision known as Adarand Constructors v. Pena, gutted the legal infrastructure upholding the country’s affirmative action programs:

In refusing for the first time to uphold a federal affirmative action policy, the court said that such race-based policies enacted by Congress must now survive the same judicial standard that state and local programs have faced since 1989. Known as ‘strict scrutiny,’ it is the toughest judicial standard to meet. To survive, a program must serve a compelling governmental interest and must be narrowly tailored to address identifiable past discrimination.

“Government may treat people differently because of their race only for the most compelling reasons,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the court. She said the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws protects “persons, not groups” of people.

“It follows from that principle that all governmental action based on race – a group classification long recognized as . . . irrelevant and therefore prohibited – should be subjected to detailed judicial inquiry to ensure that the personal right to equal protection of the laws has not been infringed.”

O’Connor and her conservative court colleagues effectively struck Rep. John Lewis in the head one more time with this disgusting and destructive ruling, which was, of course, seized upon by right-wing ideologues to block pathways to black progress. The Adarand decision represented the Supreme Court’s shout-out to those who believed that the federal government had done too much to combat past and present-day discrimination.

Perhaps the most repugnant aspect of this decision was the concurring opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas–an opinion that rhetorically lynched his own black brothers and sisters. Then-TIME Magazine columnist Jack E. White was correct beyond refutation when he observed:

These days Washington seems to be filled with white men who make black people uneasy, like Newt [Gingrich] the slasher, Bill [Clinton] the waffler and Jesse the crank—Helms, that is, not Jackson. But the scariest of all the hobgoblins may well be a fellow African American, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In the four years since George Bush chose him to fill the “black seat” vacated by Thurgood Marshall, Thomas has emerged as the high court’s most aggressive advocate of rolling back the gains Marshall fought so hard for. The maddening irony is that Thomas owes his seat to precisely the kind of racial preference he goes to such lengths to excoriate. And as long as he is on the court, no other black need apply: Thomas fills a quota of one.

The most disturbing thing about Thomas is not his conclusions, but his twisted reasoning and bilious rage. In his written opinions, he begins with premises that no self-respecting black would disagree with, then veers off into a neverland of color-blind philosophizing in which all race-based policies, from Jim Crow laws designed to oppress minorities to affirmative-action measures seeking to assist them, are conflated into one morally and legally pernicious whole. He delights in gratuitously tongue-lashing the majority of blacks who disagree with him on almost every civil rights issue. He heaps scorn on federal judges who have used the bench to enforce and expand civil rights, accusing them of a paternalistic belief in black inferiority…

[Thomas] does not hesitate to incorporate dubious theories into his opinions when they suit his purposes. In his brief concurring opinion in the court’s Adarand Constructors v. Pena, in which the court suggested that federal set-aside programs for minority contractors may be unconstitutional, Thomas wrote, “Inevitably, such programs engender attitudes of superiority or, alternatively, provoke resentment among those who believe that they have been wronged by the government’s use of race. These programs stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority and may cause them to develop dependencies or to adopt an attitude that they are entitled to preferences.” That claim reflects the wisdom of Gingrich country, where, as the House Speaker opined last week, most problems poor black people face are caused by their own “bad habits.”

What Thomas, O’Connor and their right-wing friends will never admit is that bigotry will always be with us; it is hard-wired into our very nature, and thus the federal government will always need to take measures to ensure that bigotry does not strangle the aspirations of Americans of color. To that end, there will never be a day that we can get rid of affirmative action. We will always need goals, timetables, set-asides, preferences and yes, even the dreaded quotas, as they are nothing more than tangible measures by which we seek to reduce racial inequality.

The Adarand decision did great violence to the dream of racial equality. It empowered aggrieved right-wing whites to attack affirmative action programs with vicious vehemence, and put white progressives on the defensive against dubious claims of so-called reverse discrimination. The case was a victory for right-wing ideology, but a profound and deep loss for racial justice.

 

By: D. R. Tucker, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, June 13, 2015

June 16, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Racial Justice, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When Baltimore Burned”: There Are Crucial Underlying Inequities That Demand Attention

Conservatives have sometimes been too quick to excuse police violence. And liberals have sometimes been too quick to excuse rioter violence.

It’s outrageous when officers use excessive force against young, unarmed African-American men, who are 21 times as likely to be shot dead by the police as young white men. It’s also outrageous when rioters loot shops or attack officers.

So bravo to Toya Graham, the Baltimore mom captured on video grabbing her teenage son from the streets and frog-marching him home. The boy wilted: It must be humiliating to be a “badass” rioter one moment and then to be savagely scolded in front of your peers and sent to your room.

“That’s my only son, and at the end of the day I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray,” Graham later told CBS News. It was of course Gray’s death, after an injury at the hands of the police, that set off the rioting.

On social media, there were plenty of people making excuses for rioters — a common refrain was “nothing else works to get attention.” But to their great credit, African-American leaders provided firm moral guidance and emphasized that street violence was unconscionable.

President Obama set just the right tone.

“When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot. They’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing,” Obama said. “When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson. And they’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities.”

Or as Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks basketball star who grew up in Baltimore and has invested in a youth center there, put it: “We need to protect our city, not destroy it.”

Yet as Obama, Anthony and other leaders also noted, there are crucial underlying inequities that demand attention. The rioting distracts from those inequities, which are the far larger burden on America’s cities.

That also represents a failure on our part in the American news media. We focus television cameras on the drama of a burning CVS store but ignore the systemic catastrophe of broken schools, joblessness, fatherless kids, heroin, oppressive policing — and, maybe the worst kind of poverty of all, hopelessness.

The injustices suffered by Freddie Gray began early. As a little boy he suffered lead poisoning (as do 535,000 American children ages 1 to 5), which has been linked to lifelong mental impairments and higher crime rates.

In Gray’s neighborhood, one-third of adults lack a high school degree. A majority of those aged 16 to 64 are unemployed.

And Baltimore’s African-American residents have often encountered not only crime and insecurity but also law enforcement that is unjust and racist. Michael A. Fletcher, an African-American reporter who lived for many years in the city, wrote in The Washington Post that when his wife’s car was stolen, a Baltimore policeman bluntly explained the department’s strategy for recovering vehicles: “If we see a group of young black guys in a car, we pull them over.”

Likewise, the Baltimore jail was notorious for corruption and gang rule. A federal investigation found that one gang leader in the jail fathered five children by four female guards.

Wretched conditions are found to some degree in parts of many cities, and Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta, told me that when we tolerate them, we tolerate a combustible mix.

“It’s not just about the police use of force,” she said. “It’s about a system that is not addressing young people’s needs. They’re frankly lashing out, and the police force issue is just a catalyst for their expression of frustration at being left out.”

Whites sometimes comment snidely on a “culture of grievance” among blacks. Really? When tycoons like Stephen Schwarzman squawked that the elimination of tax loopholes was like Hitler’s invasion of Poland, now that’s a culture of grievance.

If wealthy white parents found their children damaged by lead poisoning, consigned to dismal schools, denied any opportunity to get ahead, more likely to end up in prison than college, harassed and occasionally killed by the police — why, then we’d hear roars of grievance. And they’d be right to roar: Parents of any color should protest, peacefully but loudly, about such injustices.

We’ve had months of police incidents touching on a delicate subtext of race, but it’s not clear that we’re learning lessons. Once again, I suggest that it’s time for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to step back and explore racial inequity in America.

The real crisis isn’t one night of young men in the street rioting. It’s something perhaps even more inexcusable — our own complacency at the systematic long-term denial of equal opportunity to people based on their skin color and ZIP code.

 

By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, April 29, 2015

April 30, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Police Abuse, Racial Justice | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sobering Findings”: Study; Killers Are Less Likely To Be Executed If Their Victims Are Black

Black people are much more frequently executed for killing white people than white people are for killing black people, and capital punishment is rarely used at all when victims are black — especially when they’re male.

That’s according to a paper that’s set to be published in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities.

The researchers —  Frank BaumgartnerAmanda Grigg, and Alisa Mastro —compared homicide victim data with data on the victims of every inmate executed in the US from 1976 through 2013 (that’s 1,369 executions).

Here’s some of what they say the data revealed:

While 47 percent of all homicide victims were black, blacks made up 17 percent of the victims of inmates who were executed.

As a London School of Economics blog post on the paper pointed out, “this suggests not only that blacks are treated particularly harshly for the murder of whites, but also that homicides with black victims are treated less seriously than those with white victims.”

This comparison of the race of all homicide victims to the race of homicide victims of individuals who were later executed makes that even clearer and further illustrates the connection between a victims’ race and his or her killer’s fate:

The researchers found that it was exceptionally hard to find examples of killers of black male victims who were executed. “Black men, especially among the relatively young, have a statistical risk of homicide victimization many times higher than any other racial or gender group, ” they wrote, “but their killers rarely face the death penalty.”

They titled the paper #BlackLivesDontMatter, altering the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that’s been used in protests against police-involved deaths of African-American men, to reflect the sobering findings.

 

By: Jenée Desmond-Harris, Vox, February 25, 2015

February 26, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Criminal Justice System, Racial Justice | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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