Why is there still no justice for Emmett Till? | Racism

On December 6, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had closed an investigation into the 1955 murder of black teen Emmett Till. The case reopened in 2018, a year after the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Act ) by Congress authorizing the reinvestigation of crimes against blacks committed prior to 1970.

Till’s murder is often referred to as the “spark” of the civil rights movement in the United States. The image of his disfigured face, which his mother insisted he display through an open funeral, sparked outrage across the country. Reopening his case could have been an opportunity to achieve justice for his family, which was denied when the two white men accused of his murder – Roy Bryant and JW Milam – were first tried in 1955.

The two are now dead, but the woman who inspired the murder, Carolyn Bryant Dunham, is still alive. A 2017 book cited her disqualification for her allegations that Till had made physical sexual moves, which resulted in her husband Roy and half-brother Milam killing the 14-year-old boy.

The Department of Justice’s decision to close Till’s case without indicting her reflects not only the indifference that America continues to display toward the killing of black boys and men, but also its inability to hold white women accountable for their role in violence against blacks.

White femininity and keeping black men in their place

Sixty-six years ago, Till’s mutilated body was recovered from the Talatchee River in Mississippi. Roy Bryant and Milam were arrested and tried for murder, but were acquitted by a white jury. At that trial, Dunham testified that Till had grabbed her and intended to rape her — something she claimed was not true in an interview detailed in Tim Tyson’s 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till.

A year after the 1955 sentencing, Bryant and Milam confessed to Till’s murder in an interview with Look magazine. They said in their confession that their original intention was to “just flog him…and frighten some sense into him”, but that Till’s refusal to show any signs of fear and “know his whereabouts” forced them to kill him.

Milam put it plainly: “I love n****rs – in their place…I just decided it was time to notify a few people. As long as I live and can do anything about it, people having sex will stay put. …and when a person approaches male sex with a white woman, he is tired of living. I will probably kill him.”

Keeping black men in their place was central to how white America applied racism against blacks and designed segregation during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the end of the Civil War in the 1860s to the late 1960s. It was a deliberate social hierarchy to alienate black males from society, while allowing white men sexual access to both white and black women.

Till’s murder, and the subsequent murder of black men and boys by lynching mobs, was never about the guilt or innocence of the accused. Capital punishment is a form of racist terrorism aimed at stopping the struggle of blacks for equality and civil rights.

Race relations scholar John Dollard noted in his 1939 study of Southern cities that white Southerners believed that the two most egregious crimes a black man could ever commit were trying to gain economic independence from whites or the rape of a white woman.

During the Jim Crow era, the charge of “reckless eyeball”, in which a black man might look at a white woman for longer than a few seconds or insinuate sexual interest in her, was considered rape and was punishable by death. To protect white femininity, any degree of violence was believed to be justified – including lynching.

It is important to realize that white women have not only justified some of the most heinous crimes against black men in the United States, but have themselves committed acts of violence against black men. They organized lynchings and championed Jim Crow era policies.

In that sense, it’s hard to see how Dunham is not responsible for Till’s murder. She knew that accusing a black boy of intending to rape a white woman would inspire white men to kill him without trial and that lynching would be seen by the white community as justified.

The Justice Department’s decision not to press charges for Till’s murder should not be based solely on whether or not Dunham retracted her testimony. Even her most serious allegations about what Till did were not crimes that justified his murder. The Department of Justice’s refusal to prosecute her as an accomplice in murder allows her actions to incite the murder of a black boy with impunity.

Jim Crow Echoes Today

The Justice Department’s decision came more than a decade after a re-investigation of the Till case, this time by the FBI, led to the same conclusion. In 2007, a Mississippi jury, which unfortunately was not presented with all the evidence against Dunham, decided not to charge her with murder.

These repeated failures of the United States authorities to obtain justice for the murder of a black boy allow white America to find comfort in the knowledge that the deadly racial discrimination of black men during the Jim Crow era is still prevalent today.

No wonder that today, in a society that removed several decades from Jim Crow, the execution of black men and boys continues, whether in the form of police killings or vigilante murders. All too often, the justice system and the white public choose to justify these violent deaths as necessary and justified.

The failure to indict Dunham also asserted that white femininity in the United States was irreplaceable and unaccountable for violence against black men and boys. And white women know that. In recent years, a series of incidents reflecting the unabashed use of white woman privilege, posted on social media, have given rise to the so-called “Karen meme” – a group photo of a privileged white woman using vulnerability to call the police against an individual of color or group you want to target.

In one such incident, Amy Cooper, a white woman, was recorded calling police on Christian Cooper, a black man who had criticized her for walking her dog without a leash in Central Park, New York. During the call, the woman pretended to be attacked and called for urgent help. She faced charges of filing a false police report, but was dropped after she completed a “remedial program” addressing racial prejudice.

Amy Cooper, like Dunham, was well aware of the potential violent impact of her words. In a country that black men are three times more likely to be killed by police than white men, a confrontation with NYPD officers could have a violent, if not fatal, outcome for Christian Cooper.

Jim Crow describes black men as inherently violent, taking advantage of vulnerable white women, who are in constant need of protection, clearly still alive. In fact, the Jim Crow era may be over on paper, but his spirit is still alive in American society. Blacks are still killed with impunity and often still struggle to access justice.

In fact, over the past years, there has been a clear rollback of black civil rights, the destruction of affirmative action initiatives, the escalation of poverty and unemployment among blacks, and the emergence of clear political programs for white supremacy at the state and national level. In this context, the failure to deliver justice for Till’s murder reflects a white community that is recommitting itself to public manifestations of white supremacy and racial violence against blacks.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.


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