The men had stood trial for abducting a 14-year-old black boy. They pounded his face into ground chuck. Shot him in the head. And tossed his broken body — weighted with a large fan used for cleaning raw cotton that they'd hitched with barbed wire around his neck — in the Tallahatchie River.
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Emmett Till was dead. And despite damning evidence, Bryant and Milam were acquitted — after the all-white jury deliberated a mere 67 minutes. (Later, they'd cash in by selling Look magazine the blow-by-blow of how they lynched Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman).
Nearly 57 years later, and some 800 miles from the delta town where Emmett Till met his doom, another young black kid's death has revived the suspicion that a black life doesn't have all that much value.
Sure, few of the nearly 400 righteously indignant people who flocked Allen Chapel AME Church this week, demanding that police lock up George Zimmerman, probably know the details about Emmett Till's death.
But the black folk among them know all too well the deep, abiding sense that, in a country where segregation, Jim Crow and prejudice have created unequal footing, African-Americans also too often endure separate and but unequal justice.
That's why it's not surprising so many blacks packed in Sanford church in protest. And why blacks in Central Florida (and elsewhere) have reacted so viscerally to the death of Trayvon Martin, 17, who was gunned down last month.
He was shot to death while visiting his family at a gated neighborhood in Sanford. Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who isn't black, admits pulling the trigger. Self-defense, he says. And he walked out the Sanford Police headquarters, with police saying there wasn't enough evidence for an arrest.
The state attorney's office now wrestles with whether to file charges.
"We come together today in the name of justice," Allen Chapel pastor Valerie Henry told justice-seekers this week. "We stand as [Trayvon's] voice."
A ritual that's sadly become reflex.
More than a century ago, W.E.B. Dubois observed: "Daily the Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression. The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration; and, finally, the accused law-breaker is tried, not by his peers, but too often by men who would rather punish ten innocent Negroes than let one guilty one escape."
An observation borne out by lynch mobs that killed with impunity and mass tragedies such as a 1920 riot in Ocoee and the 1923 burning by a white mob of Rosewood, an all-black Levy County town, for which no arrests were made. And more recently, with the notorious 1992 acquittal by an all-white jury of four white Los Angeles cops involved in the brutal beating of Rodney King.
The message: black lives have little worth.
It's why so many blacks cynically cheered the O.J. Simpson murder verdict — even though the Juice was guilty as sin.
Subconscious payback for miscarriages of justice, like Emmett Till.
Sizing up America's racial injustice, Richard Pryor once quipped: "We go down to court looking for justice and that's what we find— Just Us!"
Much has changed since Emmett Till's killers enjoyed their stogies. But perceptions die hard.
Now, Trayvon is dead. And blacks (and others) are calling for justice.
Justice that's also colorblind behind her blindfold.
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