In the wake of George Zimmerman’s surprising acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the Archivist was immediately reminded of Emmitt Till. Before we go any further, let’s outline what just happened. Zimmerman profiled young Trayvon Martin, an African-American kid who was walking back home in a Florida suburb. Zimmerman was suspicious and approached Martin to find out who he was and what he was doing. The details get murky, but a fight ensued, and ended when Zimmerman shot and killed the young boy.
A jury acquitted Zimmerman of murder, ostensibly because of Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, in which deadly force is legitimized if the person feels threatened. The defense argued that Martin had weaponized the concrete, slamming Zimmerman’s head multiple times, causing Zimmerman to defend himself with deadly force.
This tragic case reminded me of the even more controversial case of Emmitt Till. Emmitt Till was a 14-year-old African-American teenager from Chicago. In the summer of 1955, Emmitt was visiting family in Mississippi. In Chicago, segregation and discrimination were common, but there were no laws guiding social relations among races in the city. In Mississippi however, Jim Crow was at its height, and whites enforced a strict social code of black behavior. Blacks had to adhere to these rules of Jim Crow, or their lives could be in danger. Emmitt, being from Chicago, did not know this. He went to a public place and did something that local whites found insulting. A few white Mississippians kidnapped Emmitt Till, beat him to death, and threw his lifeless body into a local river. His body was found shortly thereafter.
African-Americans in the South and in the urban North were incensed. The case became national when Emmitt Till’s mother insisted on having an open-casket funeral; she wanted the world to see what the defenders of the Jim Crow South had done to her son. Newspaper photographers captured pictures of Emmitt’s grotesquely disfigured face lying in his casket, and broadcast the pictures nationwide. The pictures produced outrage in the nation, over the fact that such a young life had been so violently and senselessly snuffed out.
The white men responsible were put on trial, but were ultimately acquitted, provoking even more outrage in the nation and among African-American communities. The country was furious that the worth and value of a black body was held at such low standards in the Jim Crow South. People were outraged that white men could perpetrate such heinous crimes with impunity, and ultimately be acquitted of responsibility. The case drew attention to the white privilege and institutionalized racism that was crystallized within the justice system of America. It was ultimately one of the many catalysts of the civil rights movement.
The country has changed tremendously in the 58 years since Till’s death. But Trayvon’s murder forces us to question just how far we’ve come. Trayvon has forced us to reckon with the fact that racism and discrimination are still embedded in our legal system. Trayvon has forced us to realize that white privilege is still alive and well. It’s time we all do something about it.