10/28/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
On Oct. 23, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Florida A&M University students and other black people from around Florida marched on the federal courthouse in Tallahassee to protest the Oct. 12 acquittal of eight Bay County boot camp employees accused of killing 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson.
The protesters rightly want federal prosecutors to take another look at the case, and prosecutors have assured the public, along with Anderson’s parents, that they are investigating.
I applaud the students for protesting the verdict. I also believe that the accused should not have walked free. After all, a child in their custody died a violent death at their hands.
That said, I have a serious history problem with the theme of the protest, and I have an extra serious problem with Benjamin Crump, the Anderson family’s attorney.
Here is why: Crump and others invoked the name and legacy of 14-year-old Emmett Till. They were wrong. I do not intend to discount the horror of what happened to Anderson, but the two deaths are far from being cleanly analogous.
“All the evidence in the world, but Emmett Till did not get equal justice,” Crump said to the 700 marchers in front of the courthouse. “The people who killed that child walked free forever. … Are we going to continue to let the history of our people getting killed with all the evidence of the world – all the evidence in the world?”
Some of the FAMU students – some of them must be history majors – should have told Crump what happened to Till and why his death and the events that coalesced around it stand out in the history of man’s evil.
On Aug. 20, 1955, Till left his Chicago home to visit relatives in Money, Miss. His mother warned him to stay in his place in the racist South, especially in Mississippi, where several black civil rights workers had been killed.
One afternoon, as the story goes, Till and his companions were on the porch of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. An intelligent kid and leader of the pack, he bragged to his companions that a white girl in Chicago had been friendly to him. One of his friends laughed and said, “There’s a pretty little white woman in there in the store. Since you Chicago cats know so much about white girls, let’s see you go in there and get a date with her.”
Till went inside and said something to the woman, the wife of the store owner Roy Bryant. People say that as Till left the store, he turned and said, “Bye, baby,” and gave a wolf whistle to the woman. He and the other boys went home.
Days later, Bryant and his half brother went to Till’s home about two in the morning. At gunpoint, they forced the boy into their vehicle and drove away with him. Days later, Till’s mutilated, bloated and disfigured body was found in the Tallahatchie River. After photos of the gruesome remains appeared in Jet magazine, hundreds of thousands of outraged people read the story, and thousands attended the funeral in Chicago. The nation’s press descended on Money.
Bryant and his brother were tried and were acquitted by an all-white jury. The killers later admitted to the crime, and their story was published in a magazine. By now, the boy’s death had ushered in the civil rights movement in earnest.
Till’s death was significant in my life and the lives of other black boys who had come of age in the South. I was 10 years old in 1955 when Till was murdered. The women in the lives of black boys at that time warned them a similar fate awaited them if they insulted a white woman. The women in my family warned me to mind my manners around white women each time I left the house. It was a scary time. My friends and I felt as if our lives were worthless and that we were at the mercy of the white man.
To this day, I can see the image of Till’s body in Jet. To this day, I feel the injustice and the inhumanity. We boys lost our innocence in 1955.
Yes, Martin Lee Anderson died horribly. But contemporary blacks should not compare his death to that of Emmett Till, who was dragged from his bed by grown men and murdered because he violated a white social norm.
Few people take us and our causes seriously when we turn tragic historical events into convenient protest themes.