In order to understand the gravity of the issue being confronted in this piece, we must go back seventy years to a time plagued with Jim Crow laws that created racial barriers that dehumanized blacks. Through the analysis of individual stories and accounts during this era, we begin to piece together the inequities and injustices blacks confronted, as well as the way in which these inequities continue to persist in today’s society.
One such story that sparked the civil rights movement and continues to draw attention today is the murder, lynching, and torture of Emmett Till. A fourteen-year-old boy, who in addition to being a victim of laws that segregated and placed blacks at an inferior level to whites, was more significantly victim of the racial imbalances and biases set forth by this legislation, ultimately resulting in his gruesome murder.
In August of 1955, a young boy played among his friends in the racist south. After his mother warned him to be careful in Mississippi, a highly segregated state with strong racial biases, he was accused by Caroline Bryant, a white woman, of harassing her in her family’s grocery store. A statement that she would decades later say was false. After Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Williams heard of the alleged harassment, they abducted Emmett Till at gunpoint from the home he was staying at with his cousins and great uncle.
Roy and Williams beat and tortured Emmett, gouging out one of his eyes and leaving his body severely mutilated. They then took him to the bank of the Tallahatchie River where they killed him with a single gunshot to the heart and tied the boy’s body to a seventy-five-pound metal fan wrapped in barbed wire before dumping his body in the river. Three days later Emmet was found in the river by police and was only identified by a ring he had been wearing with his initials engraved on it.
The news of the murder spread through town and gained nationwide attention after Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, published pictures of his body in Jet Magazine and The Chicago Defender. She forced the public, regardless of which side they took, to witness the brutality of the murder and understand the disturbing fact of the dangers of being black during this time period. Demonstrating the racial imbalances and biases that took the life of a fourteen-year-old boy, despite being wrongly accused. In continuing to show these disturbing truths, Mamie Till held an open casket funeral, completely displaying Emmett’s body to the public.
These events incited a nationwide movement where blacks and whites gathered together for one overarching purpose. To provide the same inalienable rights, justice, and equality for black individuals and enforce the founding principle that “all men are created equal”.
While the public took to the streets to protest Emmett’s murder, a nationwide dialogue also began to take shape which provided a rationale and support for Bryant and Williams. Many whites in the area resented northerners who came to report on the trial and filled the courtroom support of the defense. Every lawyer in the county volunteered to support Bryant and Williams and ten thousand dollars was raised from local businesses for their defense. A public stigma developed by the racial inequities that prevailed during this time surrounded the case and rationalized their actions. The presiding judge, Curtis L. Swango, segregated the courtroom and left racial epithets and language unpunished. As journalist John Herbers reported, “his actions at the trial were not, I think, to seek justice, but to be sure that his courtroom was totally segregated.”
After the all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Williams of Emmett’s murder it sparked nationwide outrage and was a leading cause in the incitement of the civil rights movement. This finding demonstrated the lack of justice for black citizens in a system that is based on finding justice for any individual, regardless of race, wealth, or gender. It violates the basic principles the Declaration of Independence establishes where “all men are created equal” and defies the founding truth of the United States. This gained the attention of Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke on “the evil of racial injustice”, ekoving “the crying voice of a little Emmett C. Till, screaming from the rushing waters in Mississippi”.
After Bryant and Williams gained were acquitted of the murder, they proceeded to confess their complete involvement in the murder and lynching of Till in the 1956 Look magazine profile.
Seeking Justice Today
While the murders of Emmett Till have gone unpunished ever since his family still continues to seek justice for not only Emmett but the black community today. In Timothy B. Tyson’s book “The Blood of Emmett Till”, which was published fifty years after the murder, he reveals that Carolyn Bryant admitted to her statements on the harassment on behalf of Emmett to be false and untrue. "All she confessed to, to me, was that with respect to Emmett Till putting his hands on her, there being anything physical, sexual about their encounter at the store, she said that part is not true," said Tyson. Yet, while a recent investigation has uncovered a warrant for her arrest in 1955, it was never executed nor followed through and Caroline Bryant has since gone unpunished for her false statements. The idea that death is deserved when a black individual disrespects a white woman is unfathomable and allowing such a crime to go unpunished reveals the racial imbalances that prevailed during this time. Now that Caroline Bryant has been found in Kentucky, Till's family "want[s] justice,” said Jaribu Hill, the attorney representing the family.“We want the original warrant that should have been served on her in 1955. We want that warrant to surface, and we want it served…We want the evidence that shows her culpability brought before a grand jury, and we want the state of Mississippi to take accountability, to be responsible, for all of the Emmett Tills.”
This brings us to the crucial question of why we allow violent actions including murder against black individuals to go unpunished. Why is there a repeated pattern of injustice for black communities that have gone back to the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the murder of Treyvon Martin today? This defines the basic concepts of justice and the sole purpose of the criminal justice system.