FROM EMMETT TILL TO BREONNA TAYLOR: AMERICA CONTINUES TO SANCTION THE MURDERING OF BLACKS
“We want Justice for Breonna yet justice was met for her neighbors apartment walls and not her beautiful life.” – Lebron James, NBA star
On the 65th anniversary of the acquittal of the men who murdered 14-year-old Emmett “Bobo” Till, Black America suffered another punch to the gut by a justice system that too seldom provides anything approximating justice when the victim is Black. The officers who killed Breonna Taylor will not be held accountable.
In August of 1955, Till was murdered by a group of men after being falsely accused of flirting with a White woman in Money, Mississippi. As was the custom for many Black children in the north, they would be sent “down south” to spend the summer with relatives. Till never made it back home to Chicago. I was born 37 miles away in the same county, Tallahatchie, that he was kidnapped from and murdered.
The two men tried for his murder, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were found not guilty in the county courthouse of Sumner, Mississippi on September 23, 1955. It had not even been a full month since they murdered Till. The all-white, all-male jury deliberated for 67 minutes before issuing a not guilty verdict. One juror infamously said:
“We wouldn’t have taken so long if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.”
Fast forward to September 23, 2020 and we are told that no one will be held accountable for killing 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. The officers who shot her were not found to be criminally culpable by a grand jury. One officer, who was fired months ago was charged with a crime that most Americans could not define if they tried to. Former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree for shooting into a neighboring apartment. What the heck is wanton endangerment? And just as importantly why is he facing five years in prison for shooting a wall but the officers who killed Taylor will not be charged with killing her?
Kentucky law describes wanton endangerment as happening:
“when, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, [a person] wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.”
Allow this to sink in for a moment. Because this officer could have potentially caused bodily harm to someone in a neighboring apartment, he was the sole officer indicted from the night when Taylor was killed by police wearing civilian clothes using what was reported to be a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night. If this officer had actually shot straight, like his peers who killed Taylor, he would not have lost his job and would not be facing charges right now.
As we should have suspected, protests exploded in Louisville and around the country. I am numb. I have run out of words to describe my frustrations with America. I wonder why I stay in this country. I have been warning people for years that there is something fundamentally flawed with the way we police in this country.
It is more than the police though. It is also the district attorneys, and grand jurors around the country who refuse to hold police officers accountable for killing unarmed civilians. It is the state and federal elected officials, who have passed laws that make it nearly impossible to hold police officers accountable. It is the fault of judges who have interpreted the laws in a way that gives the cops a license to kill in almost every circumstance possible. It is the uncaring way in which so many Whites in this country show indifference when these things continue to happen over and over again.
The system is the problem not the people in the system. The system works the same in 2020 as it did in 1955 even though the people are not the same. he system is called racism. It allowed the murderers of Emmett Till to walk free and be paid for giving an interview with Look magazine where they detailed what they did to Emmett Till. On January 24, 1956 the magazine ran a cover story entitled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.” Both killers were paid $1,500 a piece and their attorney was paid $1,000. The most ironic thing about the magazine cover was that it featured two smiling blonde women who looked as if they did not have a care in this world.
Milam said during the interview that as they were kidnapping Till he pointed a flashlight in his face at his uncle’s home.
Milam: “You the nigger who did the talking?”
Milam: “Don’t say, yeah to me. I’ll blow your head off. Get your clothes on.”
They stole a cotton gin fan weighing over 70 pounds so that they could weigh down Till’s corpse in the Tallahatchie River. This account comes from the interview:
They stood silently … just hating one another.
Milam: “Take off your clothes.”
Slowly, Bobo pulled off his shoes, his socks. He stood up, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his pants, his shorts. He stood there naked. It was Sunday morning, a little before 7.
Milam: “You still as good as I am?”
Milam: “You still ‘had’ white women?”
That big .45 jumped in Big Milam’s hand. The youth turned to catch that big, expanding bullet at his right ear. He dropped.
This courageous 14-year-old kid had the audacity to speak to the White people in a way that was not allowed in Mississippi at that time. He was murdered and the murderers realizing they were protected by double jeopardy laws and a solidly White pool of jurors knew that nothing would happen to them. This is how Milam defended himself and described the murder in Look magazine.
“I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers – in their place … But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you – just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’ So Big Milam decided to act. He needed a weight…Bobo wasn’t bleeding much. Pistol-whipping bruises more than it cuts. They ordered him back in the truck and headed west again … Bryant and Big Milam stood aside while Bobo loaded the fan. Weight: 74 pounds … Big Milam ordered Bobo to pick up the fan.He staggered under its weight … carried it to the river bank.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till, demanded that her son have an open casket funeral so that the world could see what they did to Bobo. According to PBS, “Emmett Till’s mutilated body would be on display for all to see. Fifty thousand people in Chicago saw Emmett Till’s corpse with their own eyes. When the magazine Jet ran photos of the body, Black Americans across the country shuddered.” The murder of Till was a catalyst for the community of Montgomery, Alabama standing up to segregation and boycotting the buses just a few months later.
The killing of Till, and the acquittal just weeks later was a heavy blow to the hearts and minds of the 15 million Black people in this country. Today, 44 million Black people were kicked in the stomach by this decision in Kentucky. Protests are occurring once again just as they were when George Floyd was killed by police in May. We have endured so many of these murders without receiving justice that it feels like we are in a never-ending, repeating cycle of doom. Justice does not allow itself to be a part of the lived experience of Blacks when they are killed by police and in many cases vigilantes.
We have done all of the things possible to tell America how we feel. America has not changed much since that hot summer day in Mississippi when two murderers walked away free men. The officers who killed Taylor will not be held accountable. Nothing will change this reality. Civil charges will not be filed. There may be talk of it happening but I would not bet on it occurring.
What can we do now? What have we not done already? Has it mattered that George Floyd’s death led to worldwide protests but here we are again just months later? How can we be comforted? How can we be expected to do anything other than express our emotions? Many won’t like the way some express their frustration over the coming days and weeks. We will hear the useless calls for more police training. We will hear people say they stand by us but don’t appreciate or support how we protest.
Unfortunately for Blacks in this country the more things change the more they stay the same. There are no words to describe the current feelings I have. I am not surprised by the decision to not charge the officers who killed Breonna Taylor. The mindset of those people in Mississippi back in the 1950s is the mindset of far too many people around the country today. We must be honest and call America out for allowing this systemic racism to perpetuate itself.
Bob Dylan’s song The Death of Emmett Till could easily be re-written on behalf of the memory of Breonna Taylor.
“And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.
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.
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!