Check It Out…Is invoking Emmett Till a disservice to history?

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

In 2012, Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood watchman, in Florida. Zimmerman said he was ambushed by Martin and claimed self-defense. The media labeled Zimmerman a White man, then showed a picture of a 13-year-old Martin as the victim. No one believed the child in the photograph could have harmed the 28-year-old Zimmerman, and it was assumed Zimmerman acted with racist intent.

Headlines announced Trayvon Martin was the new Emmett Till. Till, a Black 14-year-old from Chicago vacationing in Mississippi, was lynched for allegedly whistling at a White woman in 1955. The White lynchers were apprehended but acquitted by an all-White jury. Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist, disapproved of the Till/Martin comparison and wrote, “To make a facile comparison is a disservice to history—and the memory of both young men.”

The jury in Zimmerman’s trial concluded the forensic evidence was consistent with Zimmerman’s account of the shooting and found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder. It was also clear the media’s narrative was inaccurate.

In 2014, Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a White police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson claimed the shooting was in self-defense after Brown charged him and reached for his gun. The media reported Brown was shot with his hands up while begging the officer not to shoot.

This led to the Ferguson riots.

 

Again, commentators compared the police shooting of Michael Brown to the lynching of Emmett Till. However, the forensic evidence matched Wilson’s explanation, and Wilson wasn’t charged with any crime. The U.S. Justice Department also investigated the shooting and found no evidence to disprove Wilson’s testimony. This time, the media’s initial report was false. Michael Brown never had his hands up, and he never said don’t shoot.

August 28, 2015, was the 60th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death. Till was memorialized in Chicago with a motorcade processional from the church that held his funeral to the site of his burial. The organizers of the commemoration made sure the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were in attendance because the organizers believed there were many parallels between what happened to Till, Martin, and Brown.

What were the parallels besides the race of the victim?

Finally, on August 23, 2020, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot by a White police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake survived the shooting but was paralyzed from the waist down. The media reported Blake broke up a domestic dispute and was shot trying to enter his vehicle. But it turned out Blake’s girlfriend made the 911 call because Blake was not permitted on the premises. The police were aware Blake had a warrant for his arrest for sexual assault, trespassing, and disorderly conduct. Blake also had a knife. Blake scuffled with the police. The police used tasers, but they were ineffective. Then shots were fired. No charges were brought against the officer that shot Blake.

But a USA Today contributor wrote, “Jacob Blake and Emmett Till’s death are both part of a long story of oppression.” Then rioting erupted in Kenosha, and so did another shooting.

Kyle Rittenhouse, a White 17-year-old, was with an armed group assembled to “protect” businesses from being vandalized. During the unrest, Rittenhouse was assaulted by other White men, and Rittenhouse fatally shot two White men and wounded another in self-defense. The media portrayed Rittenhouse as a White supremacist vigilante that killed individuals protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake. Once again, the media account was a distortion, and Rittenhouse was found not guilty of murder charges.

Afterward, when Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, was asked about the Rittenhouse verdict, he said, “This was worse than the Emmett Till trial. This was worse than so many trials where we know for a fact individuals committed murder, and yet they were not brought to justice. It’s unfortunate, but this is America.”

It’s also unfortunate Emmett Till’s memory is constantly disparaged in an ongoing effort to portray present-day America as if it’s still 1955.

 

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Check It Out…Is invoking Emmett Till a disservice to history?