Why Reopening Emmett Till's Case Still Won't Give Our Black Boys Justice

I could never forget first seeing Emmett Till’s body if I wanted to. I don’t think I was more than 10 years old. The photo was in a Jet magazine my mother was reading. I remember because I was haunted by the picture and the story. I had bad dreams many nights afterward as a result, his mutilated corpse seared into my young consciousness. My little brain couldn’t compute the hate required to disfigure a young Black boy in such a way—much less that it occurred in my own country. The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Department of Justice had quietly reopened the case of Emmett Till’s murder. As any good student of our country’s deeply racist past knows, an all-White jury exonerated Till’s murderers in 1955—a flagrant denial of justice that has painfully reminded Black people of our second-class status for generations. https://twitter.com/AP/status/1017452294563094529 One would think that I’d be glad to hear our government seeks to avenge Till’s murder. But on hearing the news, I found little cause to celebrate. Not because the family doesn’t deserve closure. Rather, because it feels disingenuous. It fits a pattern in America, where Black people are expected to endure the most brutal atrocities while patiently awaiting the sluggish arrival of justice. Then, just when all hope seems lost, when consequences have the least impact, we get flipped a token of reparation. It is an expectation of long-suffering perseverance I don’t see demanded of any other group. And I’m tired of it.

This Is Not Justice

As the late Dr. King wrote, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And yet despite this, there is a tendency to insist the Black community “wait for all the facts” in the face of injustice. You’ve heard it before. It’s a canned response to the slightest implication we’ve been maligned by the justice system. “Why don’t you let the investigation play out?” they ask. “We weren’t there, we don’t know what happened,” they say. I’m all for a thorough and comprehensive evaluation of evidence. But when race is involved, this is most often used as a shield against accountability. It has always been assumed Emmett Till’s accuser, Carolyn Donham, lied about the alleged encounter leading to his lynching. Her dishonesty aided the acquittal of Till’s murderers by that all-White jury. But don’t think for a second that this was a rare occurrence. False accusations by White women have been the precursor for countless American lynchings of Black men. Not until last year however, well into her years, did Donham finally admit to fabricating the story. Please understand, virtually nobody in the Black community was surprised by this. We know how this works. We weren’t surprised after a grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson for shooting and killing Michael Brown, only to find sworn testimony that later seemed to contradict claims of Brown grabbing Wilson’s weapon from the holster. We weren’t surprised when the officer who killed Tamir Rice claimed the young boy failed to comply and reached for his waistband, only for video evidence to show he was shot less than two seconds after arriving on the scene. We weren’t surprised when East Pittsburgh Officer Michael Rosfeld fatally shot Antwon Rose in the back after initially reporting that he turned toward him while holding something. Only after civilian video showed Rose running away was it proven a lie. Rosfeld has since been charged, but there is no guarantee he will be held accountable. It’s no small wonder then that Black boys like Emmett, Michael, Tamir and Antwon experience exclusionary discipline in school at several times the rate of their White peers. Again, we are not surprised. So now, 63 years after Mamie Till opened her son’s casket to the world so they could see what had been done to her child, the DOJ decides to reinvestigate? This is not justice. It is retraumatizing and it is a shallow gesture meant to keep would-be critics of the current, racist system at bay. Moreover, this feeble attempt at correcting racial injustice will not provide remedy, because the system will function much in the same way it always has. Remember, this is the same Department of Justice that just ended Obama-era efforts at police reform. This is the same administration that discourages affirmative action and is just looking for a reason to roll back Obama-era guidance on curbing racist discipline practices in our schools. Do we really expect to see an honest effort to address the sort of racism that inspired Till’s death? I’m tired of waiting. But we still live in a society where Black boys are falsely accused, viewed as adults, overly policed and penalized. Unless and until there is some effort underway to deal with the totality of institutional racism, relitigating murders over half a century later will not suffice. It’s justice denied.
James E. Ford
James E. Ford is the 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He currently is the Principal Consultant at Filling the Gap Educational Consultants and is a first year doctoral student at UNC-Charlotte. Ford earned a bachelor of science in mass communication from Illinois State University in 2003 and a master’s degree in ...

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