This summer marks 66 years since the 1955 lynching of then-14-year-old Emmett Till by White supremacists, but the brutal murder that catalyzed the 20th century civil rights movement stands out as a starting point while George Floyd’s death underscores the progress and lack thereof in America’s struggle for equality and justice.
It was falsely alleged that Till had flirted with a White female grocery store clerk while visiting relatives in Mississippi. The clerk’s husband and a group of other White men abducted him, beating him such that he could only be identified by a ring on his finger that had been given to him by his father, and left the child dead on August 28, 1955.
For her son’s funeral in Chicago, Mamie Till insisted that the casket containing his brutally ravaged and mutilated body be left open, because, in her words, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”
Thousands came to view the body and pictures were published nationally in magazines and newspapers. Emmett’s mother hoped by this public display of racial hatred and violence, others would garner the strength to stand up against oppression.
She was right. One hundred days later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a White patron. Parks later indicated that it was Emmett Till’s murder that led her to say enough is enough.
Known as “Mother of the Movement,” Parks’ defiance sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and progression of the Civil Rights Movement. As a teen, Parks attended National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leadership training where she met Ella Baker, who encouraged her to organize an NAACP Youth Council in Montgomery, which she did.
Baker, who began activism during the 1920s, was instrumental in the organization and expansion of the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLU), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In 1964, as a tireless organizer for the Freedom movement, Baker said, “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
Baker’s words remain relevant today.
The cries for justice and equality grow louder as homicides of Black men and women at the hands of police officers take center stage.
Between 2014 and 2020, police in the United States killed at least 7,680 people. Twenty-five percent of those killed were Black, although African Americans comprise a much smaller share—just 13 percent—of the US population.
From Tamir Rice to Breonna Taylor, there is strong evidence that police immunity and weak enforcement of civil rights laws create a mandate for change that iruning into a wall of inaction.
Obstructing reform laws are police unions, like the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association—a powerful political force that last year supported Republican President Donald Trump and endorsed Senator Joe Cryan in the upcoming Democratic primary election.
In one year alone, more than 250 Black people were killed by police officers, and thus far there has been little accountability for their actions.