Fifty years is a long time, especially as it pertains to social mores and racial tolerance.
A few weeks ago, I was walking into Wal-Mart as an attractive 40-ish woman was walking out. Just as we were about to pass, a long, slow whistle cut through the parking-lot air. We both looked over at the same time to notice a group of a half-dozen or so teen-aged boys drinking in the view of her long legs and flowing skirt. The whistle had been offered in admiration from one of the members of the group. The woman, maybe just old enough to appreciate Mae West's line, "I'd rather be looked over than to be overlooked," offered them a wry smile before sailing into the house that Sam Walton built.
All in all, a rather inane occurrence save this one salient fact: The group of teen-agers was black and the object of their public affection was white.
Flashback 50 years to the summer of 1955 and a similar encounter proved to have far more serious consequences. In August of that year, Mamie Till of Chicago put her 14-year-old son, Emmett, on a southbound train to Money, Miss., to visit his great-uncle Moses Wright. Emmett, having been raised on the integrated streets of Chicago, was ill-equipped to deal with the Jim Crow avenues of Mississippi.
On Aug. 24, 1955, Emmett was part of a group of eight black teen-agers that went into Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy. The store was owned and operated by a white couple by the names of Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Emmett, witnesses later say, did more than just buy bubble gum at the store, he also whistled at Carolyn Bryant.
The South in 1955 has very little in common with the North of today. Carolyn Bryant did not smile at Emmett Till when he whistled. Her husband, Roy, responded in a much more heinous fashion.
In the wee hours of Aug. 28, 1955, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, pulled up to the home of Moses Wright and kidnapped Emmett. It was the last time that Emmett's family would see him alive. On Aug. 31, 1955, Emmett's badly decomposed body was removed from the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and Milam later recounted in great detail how they abducted Emmett and beat him so brutally that his screams could be heard a mile away. The brothers also detailed their actions of taking Emmett to the river and shooting him in the head before affixing a heavy metal fan to his neck with barbed wire and throwing him into the river.
Despite a gloating confession from Bryant and Milam to Emmett's murder, an all-white jury deliberated just 67 minutes before acquitting them on all charges. One juror even boasted that the deliberations wouldn't have taken as long as they did, but the jury stopped to have a bottle of pop.
Reverberations of the jury's decision seemed to reach all corners of the world. A newspaper in Germany, Freies Volk, wrote that "the life of a Negro isn't worth a whistle."
Mamie Till made the fateful and courageous decision to have an open casket funeral for Emmett. As his body lay in state at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Chicago, thousands filed past and looked on in horror at the abused state of the 14-year-old's body. "Jet" magazine subsequently published photos of Emmett's corpse and black America as a whole shared in the Till family's outrage. Exactly 100 days after Emmett Till's murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man in Montgomery, Ala. Her actions and Emmett's murder were the main catalysts that ignited the fuse of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
The scene at the Wal-Mart came just two days before the FBI announced that they would exhume Emmett Till's body in order to determine the precise cause of his death. Just one year ago, officials in Mississippi reopened their investigation into Till's murder. Although J.W. Milan died in 1980 and Roy Bryant followed him to the grave in 1990, officials believe that other people who may have been involved in the murder might still be alive. During the course of their examination of the case, they realized that an autopsy on Emmett Till was never performed and an official cause of death was never determined. Members of Emmett's family have since stated that they prefer that an autopsy not be conducted. They feel that Emmett should remain at peace.
It's nearly impossible to weigh in on what the proper course of action should be from the viewpoint of modern-day Niagara County. Those of us born here, along with our ancestors long before, have thankfully never known of the blind hatred that drove men like Bryant and Milan to such an unspeakable act. We are, after all, the tail end of the Underground Railroad. Scattered throughout our neighborhoods were safe houses and secret passageways, from the hidden cellar at Murphy's Orchard in Burt to the Michigan Street Baptist Church in Buffalo. Many residents of our towns and cities shared the goal of getting folks born into slavery far, far away from the likes of Bryant and Milan. Who among us can say what is the right path now, a family's plea for privacy or a nation's need to repent the sins of a bygone day?
Bob Dylan seemed to speak to both viewpoints in his 1963 song, "The Death of Emmett Till." In one stanza he details his feelings upon hearing the news of the acquittal and the need to see justice done.
I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin' down the courthouse stairs.
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.
The song closes with Dylan making the current Till family's argument that the only true way to honor Emmett's memory must come from within each and every one of us.
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.
Fifty years have passed since his brutal murder and today millions of hearts across this great nation pray that Emmett Till's soul has found peace.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||May 17 2005|