Cry Justice: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin

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No one will ever know exactly what transpired between Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant in that Mississippi store over 50 years ago. As with Emmett Till, the Trayvon Martin case cries out for justice.

[Murder Down South]

The battle continues. In 1969, a klansman said “n-ggers will have to fight for every inch he gets from now on.”

And here were stand. On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. Trayvon’s crime might have been being Black, alone, and vulnerable to a racially motivated attack.

Trayvon Martin, 17, was visiting his father, in Sanford, Florida, from Miami. Over fifty years ago, Emmett Till, 14, was visiting his grand-father in Money, Mississippi, from Chicago. Emmett Till was abducted in the night, by Whites, tortured and killed. It was 1955. Much has changed. Too much remains the same.

For generations, African-Americans in the rural South and the urban North lived in fear of being prey to angry Whites intent on harm. Driving while Black. Walking while Black. Being young and Black. Being Black and alone - Period.

Slave laws allowed any White person to detain Blacks and demand to be shown signed papers allowing unsupervised freedom. After slavery, Black Codes, or criminal laws for Blacks, were enacted to unfairly arrest newly freed Blacks for loitering, trespassing, or disorderly conduct. During the ‘Jim Crow’ years of segregation, there was as much to fear from law enforcement as lynch mobs. Blacks could not serve on juries, vote, or testify in court without death threats. Too often, the sheriff hid beneath a sheet and carried a klansman’s torch.

Emmett Till’s mother could expect little from the criminal justice system. He had been lynched one year after the much heralded Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision. The facts leading to the Emmett Till case are unclear. He entered a country store, alone. It is said Emmett Till did not demonstrate due deference to Carolyn Bryant, a White woman who, with her husband, Roy Bryant, owned the little Mississippi store.

There was no rape. No assault. Emmett Till was deemed an “uppity Negro” from the city who needed to be shown his “place.” On the night of August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam, took Emmett Till. His broken body was found in the Tallahatchie River. An open casket revealed the mutilated corpse of a once handsome, smiling, 14 year old boy. An all-White jury acquitted Bryan and Milam.

In his photo, Trayvon Martin is handsome and smiling. The facts are unclear. However, it is known that he was unarmed that night. George Zimmerman, White, 28, a volunteer for his neighborhood watch group, was carrying a concealed handgun. Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious Black teenager in his coveted middle-class gated community. Despite direct instructions by the 911 dispatcher to leave the boy alone, Zimmerman confronted him. A shot is fired. There are claims the boy pleaded for his life. Zimmerman claims Trayvon attacked him. Trayvon Martin is dead. The Florida law “Stand Your Ground” expanded self-defense to include feeling a threat anywhere, anytime. Perhaps the threat was a Black youth who did not cower enough for Zimmerman.

Protests around the Trayvon Martin murder over-shadowed the sentencing of Deryl Dedmon. Dedmon, 19, White, was sentenced to life in prison for the racially motivated murder of James C. Anderson, 47, a Black man, in Jackson, Mississippi. Deryl Dedmon lived in Jackson’s predominantly White suburb of Brandon, MS. After a birthday party he and his friends decided to drive their pick-up trucks into Jackson to assault Black men. They planned to hunt for vulnerable Blacks – drunk, homeless, or alone - and assault them.

The boys encountered James Anderson in a motel parking lot, alone. They set upon him yelling “White Power.” After beating Anderson bloody, Deryl Dedmon intentionally ran Anderson down with his truck. Then, Dedmon backed up, and drove over him again, crushing Anderson to death. At his sentencing, Dedmon apologized to Anderson’s family saying he was “young and dumb, ignorant and full of hatred.” Anderson’s family rejected the death penalty, sparing the young man’s life.

Tremendous gains have been made since the Emmett Till murder. The motel’s surveillance camera captured Dedmon’s assault on James Anderson. The 911 dispatcher recorded the racial epithets and actions of George Zimmerman. In a press conference at the White House, a Black president called the killing of Trayvon Martin a tragedy.

A Black U.S. Attorney General will investigate Trayvon’s murder. Norton N. Bonaparte, Jr., Sanford, Florida’s City Manager, is a Black man, from New Jersey. This is progress, hard-fought, every inch of it.

Despite the passage of time, the Emmett Till murder haunts this country. No one will ever know exactly what transpired between Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant in that Mississippi store over 50 years ago. As with Emmett Till, the Trayvon Martin case cries out for justice.

If not now, when?   


Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and “The U.S. Constitution: An African-American Context,” and is a journalist covering the U.S. Supreme Court.
 
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