Today marks the anniversary of one of the most beautiful moments and the anniversary of one of the most ugly moments in a vital part of the American story: the civil rights movement. If you want to understand America today, you have to understand America’s yesterdays, even the shameful ones. Today is the anniversary of the “March on Wasthington” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” Speech. It is also the anniversary of the end of the young life of Emmitt Till.
On August 28, 1955, 14 year old Emmitt Till was murdered, because he talked to a white woman.
Till was 14 years old, visiting family in Mississippi. Upon leaving a store, he said something to a white woman. She went home and told her husband. Three nights later her husband Roy Bryant and his brother went to Till’s uncle’s house and took Till out at gunpoint.
They pistol whipped him. They beat him for hours. Finally, they shot him in the face, tied a 75 pound fan to him and threw him in the Tallahatchee river. His body was discovered three days later.
Mamie Till, the mother of Emmitt, became one of the early heroes of the civil rights movement by her response. The demanded that the body be taken back to Chicago for an open casket funeral. She wanted the world to see what happened to a black kid for talking to a white woman in the south. Nearly 30,000 people came to view the body. Pictures were shown in national magazines. There was outrage from coast to coast.
The woman that Till allegedly talked to was Carol Bryant. She was 21 years old. She testified in court that Till had “grabbed her and verbally harassed her” and “I was just scared to death.”
Earlier this year, Bryant admitted that she wasn’t telling the truth.
Nearly everyone in the town of Money, Mississippi knew who did it. The trial lasted five days. Jurors were allowed to drink beer during the trial. The judge greeted African Americans in the courtroom with two words to start the trial, “Hello Niggers” The jury deliberated for 67 minutes. One of the jurors laughed and said, “If we hadn’t of stopped to drink soda, it wouldn’t have taken that long. They returned a unanimous “not guilty” verdict. Why wouldn’t they? No white person had ever been convicted of murder against a black person at that point in Mississippi.
The next eight years saw bus boycotts, fire hoses and dogs used to attack children, fights over school integration, lunch sit ins, marches, freedom rides, lynchings, bombings, and all kinds of good and bad events in the struggle to make this country live up to its promises.
In order to truly move forward, there would have to be a national civil rights bill. The federal government would have to take a more active role in defending the rights and safety of minorities in this country. On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation calling for such a bill. It would have to be passed in Congress, which would not be easy.
Dr. Martin Luther King, and other civil rights leaders organized a “March on Washington” to pressure Congress, and the nation in to passing the civil rights bill. On August 28, 1963 a quarter million people came from all over to march on the nation’s capital. They were peaceful, orderly, and witnessed one of the most eloquent and moving speeches of all time when Dr. King told them of his dream.
The Civil Rights bill would pass in 1964. It would make it illegal to deny entry to people based upon the color of their skin or religion to places of public accommodation like parks, theaters, restaurants and more. It forbade any federally funded program from engaging in discrimination. It gave the federal government the ability to prosecute racially motivated crimes, rather than leave it up to state and local courts like in the trial of Emmitt Smith. It was a huge step forward that had come after many years of paying a terrible price.
The journey between August 28, 1955 and August 28 1963 was the difficult one from the time in which a white person could murder a black in the American south and rightfully expect to get away with it, to perhaps the greatest and most effective peaceful protest in our history. Along that journey, many people of all backgrounds gave up their youth and innocence to run towards the fight. They often were beaten, harassed, jailed, and sometimes killed. They took the rest of us from Emmitt Till to “I Have a Dream.” The rest of us benefit from that fight, and we owe it to the heroes of our past to continue that fight.