COLUMBIA — The year was 1955. I was in downtown Kansas City shopping, and over my head, the newspaper vendors were shouting out the headlines. They were talking about a teenager that was found dead in Mississippi. I bought a paper, and that was the first time I heard about Emmett Till.
Later, I read the story. He was a 14- year-old black youngster whose mutilated body had been found in Money, Miss. As it turned out, he had been accused of whistling at a white woman. He had been beaten up by the woman’s husband and his friend, shot in the head, had a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck and was thrown in the Tallahatchie River. By the end of the week, his name was on the lips of everyone I met.
His mother was very angry. She had him laid to rest in an open coffin, and thousands viewed his body. Magazines and newspapers carried photos of his body. In the end, two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were arrested, went to trial and were acquitted. Later, they admitted that they had killed Emmett Till.
As far as I’m concerned, the Civil Rights movement was born at that time. Between 1876 and 1930 an estimated 500 African Americans had been killed in Mississippi under questionable circumstances.
It’s a bookmark kind of story. Every now and then somebody will bring it up to reference another story in the daily news. Currently, the Trayvon Martin story is being referenced.
By the time you hear these stories repeated a thousand times you understand that some people just don’t get the message. George Zimmerman suspected that Trayvon Martin had burglarized someone’s home. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam suspected that Emmett Till had flirted with a white woman.
These two men lost their lives because of what was going on in the mind of someone else.
In the minds of all people, does a black life have the same value as a white life? Actually, the only person who can answer that question is the person who made the decision to kill the other person. The color of a person’s skin only matters to some people.
Emmett Till was killed 58 years ago. Still we ask the same questions today as we did then. That’s because we still don’t know the answer. Does racism last a lifetime?
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