I was too young to remember Emmett Till. In fact I’d never heard of Emmett Till until the early 1990’s when I read Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle, a novel based on what happened to Emmett Till. Till was a fourteen year old black youth from Chicago, IL, visiting family in Mississippi and not attuned to the racial protocols in the South in 1955. He spoke to a white girl, an offense that got him killed. His killers mutilated his body hideously, so much so everyone encouraged his mother to have a closed-casket funeral. “No,” she said, “let them see what they did to my boy.”
If you Google “Emmett Till” and click on the Wikipedia article, you’ll see a picture of Emmett taken the Christmas before he died. You’ll see a smooth-faced, handsome kid, sporting a man’s hat at a jaunty angle on his head. If you scroll down, you’ll see what his mother wanted the world to see, and it’s tough to look at; but don’t you dare look away.
Till’s death didn’t stop the wave of violence against blacks in the 1950’s or 1960’s, but it put a face to it. Till was a diminutive young man, small for his age and no match for the two, grown men who kidnapped him, beat him, gouged an eye out, shot him, then disposed of his body in the Tallahatchie River after they tied a seventy-pound cotton gin fan to his neck. Months after their acquittal, his murderers admitted to the killing in an interview; double jeopardy prevented a re-trial.
Today, what happened to Emmett Till is abbreviated to KWB–Killed While Black–and too many of us think, “That was the past. That doesn’t happen anymore.” Flash forward almost sixty years to a time when Emmett, had he lived, would likely have grown grandchildren, and hear the name Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon was murdered and buried before we ever learned how he died. We may be past the time where Trayvon could be executed for speaking to a white woman; however, he couldn’t survive a walk to a convenience store and a return to a “gated community.”
I’ll digress for a moment and say I abhor gated communities. The thought of putting up a gate to keep out the riff-raff is medieval. Oh, the homeowners would never say “riff-raff,” but, wink, wink, you know what they mean. When I was looking for a house after retirement, someone recommended a community in Haymarket, VA, near where I grew up, so I went to have a look. I had an appointment with a realtor, but the rent-a-cop at the gate wouldn’t let me inside unless he Xeroxed my driver’s license. I refused and left. When the realtor called later to find out why I stood her up, I said, “I didn’t know it was a gated community.” “What’s wrong with that?” she asked. “They’re fucking elitist.” Digression over.
Trayvon was allowed to be in that gated community; his father was visiting someone who lived there. They had been watching a basketball game, and the seventeen year old, probably needing a break from the adults, walked a short distance to a convenience store to purchase an Arizona Iced Tea and a box of Skittles. It was a rainy, February afternoon in Florida, and Trayvon wore a hoodie.
Trayvon committed the “crime” of being a young, black man dressed in a hoodie while walking in a gated community in a state where you can say anything short of shooting someone in the back is self-defense and get away with it. Trayvon had the misfortune of piquing the attention of a self-ordained neighborhood watcher and wannabe cop who followed him after a 9-1-1 Dispatcher told him not to, who apparently accosted Trayvon, and who, though he out-weighed Trayvon by more than 100 pounds, was so frightened of that can of tea and that box of candy that he put a single 9mm round in Trayvon’s chest. Trayvon’s body was drug-tested; the shooter wasn’t. The shooter claimed self-defense, and the cops looked at a dead, young, black man in a hoodie and decided no arrest was in order.
We all know the shooter’s name, but I’m not acknowledging him as a person right now. Yes, my religion tells me to appreciate the inherent goodness in every person, and eventually I’ll forgive. The name we need to have on our lips every minute of every day until the shooter is behind bars is Trayvon Martin. White or black, or any color in between, sit your children down and tell them Trayvon’s name. Tell them Trayvon was a good kid, a good student. Tell them he loved airplanes and wanted to be an aviation mechanic. Tell them he played football and loved basketball. Tell them he was murdered because he was black. What? You don’t want to tell your children that? Tell them anyway.
Because Trayvon has to be the last one. Do you understand? The last time this happens.