After the gruesome murder of her only child, Mamie Till-Mobley sought a salve for her suffering, a small comfort for Black people knotted with grief. “I don’t want his death to be [an in] vain thing,” she said. “If it can further the cause of freedom, I will say that he died a hero.”
What happened to her son, Emmett Till, should have permanently altered this nation’s DNA. It should have stripped out the embedded threads of white supremacy that led two white men to kidnap, torture, and murder that 14-year-old Chicago boy who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. His remains, battered beyond recognition, were found a week later in the Tallahatchie River, a 75-pound fan lashed to his body with barbed wire.
Murdered 65 years ago this week, Till should have been this nation’s last martyr for racial justice, its last hero for freedom. He is not, because this nation remains too comfortable with the Black trauma that yields too many Emmett Tills.
On Sunday and in front of his children, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wis. Somehow Blake survived and remains in serious condition. His father says Blake is, for now, paralyzed from the waist down. Protesters took to the streets demanding justice that they already know is usually delayed and often denied for Black people.
Two days earlier in Lafayette, La., police killed Trayford Pellerin. He was reportedly holding a knife, but video shows that Pellerin was well ahead of police and walking away from them when officers shot him to death.
And these are the assaults and killings we’ve heard about, the ones with widely circulated videos that provide both eyewitness footage and psychological horror for Black people as they replay relentlessly on social media and TV news shows.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, fatal killings by police remain at the same level this year as they have during comparable periods dating back to 2015. From January through Aug. 22, police have killed 751 people in 253 days in statistics tracked by the group Mapping Police Violence. Black people are three times more likely than whites to be killed by police.
Till was not killed by police. Yet his death resulted from the same racist terrorism that still drives brutality by law enforcement. And the circumstances of his death prevent him from being consigned, nameless and forgotten, to history or memory. Whether as a smiling, sweet-faced boy or the horribly disfigured corpse in an open casket (his mother “wanted the world to see what they did to my baby”) he is an evergreen emblem of this nation’s unresolved racist transgressions. From Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice to Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor, Till’s name still resonates — and not only because his killers who, after their sham trial, confessed in a paid magazine interview. Their acquittal, and every similar injustice since, indicts this nation.
Three months ago this week, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who planted his knee on Floyd’s neck and choked the life out of him. In death, Floyd has been compared to Till, the latter’s name often seen on handmade signs at nationwide protests this summer against police violence and systemic racism. Those protests have continued, including in Louisville, Ky., where the three officers who shot Taylor to death in her apartment in March have yet to be charged in her killing.
Every time a Black person is killed by police or someone who believes white supremacy gives them the right to mete out what they perceive as justice against Black lives, the debt owed, the rage incurred, the chasm between democracy imagined and democracy achieved, grows deeper. With racism, what happened to Till 65 summers ago in Mississippi feels like today.
So much for the oversold “reckoning” that was supposed to jolt this nation into demolishing racist systems and institutions designed to work against and endanger Black people. But hey, all is not lost. At least we have the facile performative activism of Black Lives Matter murals and the cancellation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, right?