Not guilty: The Ghost of Emmett Till

The killing of Trayvon Martin — and the raw emotion it evoked — has some people recalling the horrifying murder of Emmett Till.

Till was a 14-year-old from Chicago who went south to visit relatives in the summer of 1955 and came home in a casket that his mother left open for all the world to see. Snatched from his bed in the middle of the night, Emmett Till was savagely beaten and shot in the head in Money, Mississippi by evil men acting as judge, jury and lynch mob. His disfigured body was weighted down by a heavy object and dumped into a river. Till’s so-called crime: whistling at a white woman in a store.

Shortly after Saturday’s not guilty verdict, Emmett Till was trending on Twitter. The comparison of Trayvon’s death to that of Emmett Till’s is halting. It speaks volumes about the open wound that has yet to heal in America. What happened to the men accused of Till’s murder can hardly be called a trial. It was a travesty, as were all the trials from that era involving white people killing black people.

On its face, the comparison seems far-fetched. At that time, Klansmen wore hoods and hung black men from trees while their wives and children watched like a Saturday night picture show. 

Today, America is supposed to be past all that. Black folks live where they want, go to school where they want and hold high-ranking corporate jobs. A black man has been elected president, not once but twice. Laws have changed and so have attitudes. But the deep scars of slavery still linger and can be seen in absent fathers and the hopelessly under-employed or unemployed. Our young black men are treated as public enemy number one in their own country. Sadly, America is still polarized along racial, political and economic lines. We rarely talk deeply and constructively about the issues that divide us. People post hateful comments on blogs, cloaking themselves in anonymity. Anger and resentment simmer just beneath the surface.

The not guilty verdict delivered in the George Zimmerman case exposed those emotions in much the same way as Till’s murder did, bringing forth the ghosts of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and countless others murdered before their time by fear and hatred.


“Another not guilty”
By Frank X Walker
Kentucky’s Poet Laureate

This ache
this follow-you-home
grief is heavy
like after birth

clings to everything
like pollen
in the spring

it is suffocating
like thick smoke
in a house on fire
fueled by the myth
of a post racial

this is how Chicago
felt when they spit
Emmett home
in a box

This poem was reprinted here with Frank X Walker’s permission