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Trayvon's death: Echoes of Emmett Till?
Some see similarities in the death of Trayvon Martin, left, and the 1955 killing of Emmett Till.
March 24th, 2012
08:10 PM ET

Trayvon's death: Echoes of Emmett Till?

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) -  Both were African-American teenagers who left home and never came back. Both forced the nation to talk about unwritten racial codes. Both didn’t live to see what symbols they became.

Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till.

They died 57 years apart, but their names and legacies may be forever merged. Some are saying Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager who was shot to death by a white Hispanic neighborhood watchman is on the verge of becoming this generation’s Emmett Till.

Thousands of angry Americans – of various races - have taken to Facebook and news sites and the streets to compare Martin’s fate to Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly violating an unwritten Southern racial code by whistling at a white women.

Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson invoked Till in Martin’s case to say black men still wear a “bull’s-eye” throughout their lives.

Though he stopped short of comparing Martin’s case to Till’s, calling such comparison “facile … a disservice to history and to the memory of both young men.”   But, he added, “it is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.”

Is the comparison fair?

Mark Naison, an African-American Studies and History professor at Fordham University in New York puts it this way: “Emmett Till broke the code of his time by speaking in a suggestive, teasing way to a white women - Martin by wearing a hoodie and walking at night through a white neighborhood. The reason for the second death is every bit as outrageous as the reason for the first.”

Martin died February 26, while walking to his father’s home. Police say he was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, who said he was acting in self-defense. Martin was unarmed, carrying a bag of Skittles candy and an iced tea, according to police.

A lawyer for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood volunteer, says his client is not a racist, is of mixed race himself, and had mentored two children of a black woman. Now, a month after Martin died, Zimmerman still has not been arrested.

Martin’s death has re-ignited debate over the public perception of black men.

“I don’t think anyone doubts that if the race of those two were reversed that the perpetrator would be arrested,” says Chris Johnson, one of the creators of “The Question Bridge,” an interactive exhibition that focused on black men, “the most opaque and feared demographic in America,” according to organizers.

The Question Bridge” exhibition toured the country this year, showing videos of black men posing and answering questions of black men from different generations. Johnson said it was designed to shed many of the labels attached to black men - such as "criminal" - by getting them to talk openly about them.

The questions were abstract, but Martin’s case made it more personal, Johnson says: It shows many black men are still feared and shackled by stereotypes, just as they were in Till’s time.

Even so, much has changed since the 1950s.

Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, when he allegedly flirted with a white woman in a store. He was abducted at night from his great uncle’s home, tortured and murdered. His body was dumped in a river.

Two white men were arrested, and indicted by a Grand Jury.

A relative of Till identified the two men in court as the men who kidnapped his nephew. The jury deliberated 67 minutes before acquitting the two, who were photographed grinning and laughing in court.

Till’s death drew people’s attention to a prejudiced and corrupt legal system in the Jim Crow South. Martin’s death is drawing people’s attention to the conduct of Florida police and the state's gun laws, says Randolph McLaughlin, a New York attorney and professor at Pace Law School in New York.

“Just as in Emmett Till’s case, nothing was done by local authorities,” he says. “It was fine to lynch a black kid then. It’s fine to kill a black kid now.”

Till’s mother took advantage of an emerging technology – television – to mobilize the nation on behalf of her son. She also insisted that photos of her son’s deformed corpse be made public.

Till’s mother’s decision to go to the media galvanized the nation, says David Aretha, author of “The Murder of Emmett Till.”

“When Emmett’s coffin arrived via train in Chicago, she touched the box and fell to the ground. As five men lifted the wrapped body out of the box, she wailed ‘Oh, God. Oh, God. My only boy,’” Aretha says.

Television cameras recorded the heartbreaking scene.

When Aretha heard about the death of Trayvon Martin, he says he thought about the similarities to Till’s death.

“The murders themselves were appalling, but what really angered the general public was the injustice - highly questionable laws and customs that allowed for whites to freely murder blacks in the Jim Crow South and for someone to almost randomly shoot anyone in the Martin case,” Aretha says.

Still, there are some significant differences between Till and Martin.

Till violated the racial codes of the South by his swagger and talking to a white woman, says James Peterson, an African-American studies professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

Martin didn’t do anything, Peterson believes.

“Trayvon Martin was literally walking to his father’s house,” Peterson says. “This is racial profiling and vigilante justice gone wrong.”

Blacks had little political power in 1955 - couldn’t even vote in many parts of the South. Today, of course . The president of the United States is black, as well as the nation’s attorney general, Peterson notes.

At a news briefing, the president expressed sympathy for Martin’s family, and added a personal note:.

“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said.

Till’s case had unexpected political consequences, Aretha says.

“The Till case, without question, fueled the emerging civil rights movement,” Aretha says. “… Someone asked Rosa Parks why she didn’t get up [from her bus seat] when she was threatened [with arrest for disobeying a law that required blacks to give up their seats to white people.] She said she thought about Emmett Till and couldn’t go back anymore. We will see if the murder of Trayvon Martin sparks another kind of social movement.”

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Filed under: Black in America • Discrimination • How we look • Race • Social justice
soundoff (997 Responses)
  1. hi

    Hi

    July 19, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mark Person

    As per usual, CNN is full of crap.

    July 15, 2013 at 8:37 am | Report abuse |
  3. Susan

    Will be fascinating to see what happens next.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arthur

      That's frustrating yet rianvleeg that the state's attorney is the one that decided not to have Zimmerman arrested and prosecuted. Hopefully, the assignment of a new attorney will reverse this decision. This sheds additional light on Michelle Alexander's statement that no one has more power in the criminal justice system than prosecutors, which appears in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

      August 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kim

      Race aside, it's still very very wrong. How can he claim self defense when the boy had notihng on him to hurt anyone with, yet he himself had a gun? Come on now. And they won't even try to investigate it?? A person's life was taken!! That definitely calls for an investigation.I think all too often police try to cover eachother's backs when things like this happen. In my town not too long ago a drunk off duty police officer was speeding and hit and killed a 15 year old boy with his car. The officers who responded to the scene (one being the father of the officer who killed the boy) tried to cover it up. They disregarded evidence (an empty liquor bottle that was thrown from the car window after the accident happened that an eyewitness saw) and the officer refused a blood alcohol test at the hospital siting a fear of needles as an excuse. When a persons life is taken, ALL ASPECTS of the issue should be investigated, whether or not it was probably self defense. That is ridiculous.

      August 5, 2012 at 7:21 am | Report abuse |
  4. raceisamyth

    If zimmerman is a white hispanic, martin was a white african, and im a white cherokee.

    April 26, 2012 at 7:40 am | Report abuse |
  5. CINCEO1

    The Emmett Till comparison is just another device being used to get people even more upset about this. Anyone who knows their history (including CNN) knows that this is nothing remotely close to Emmett Till. They want us to be angry so that we can give them something juicy to report on... dont let the media control your way of thinking.

    April 10, 2012 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
    • raceisamyth

      Exactly! Perfect observation!

      April 26, 2012 at 7:53 am | Report abuse |
      • Asryilede

        Stand your ground densefe would not work in this case as the shooter would have had to feet he was in imminent danger and they would have to be facing one another. Since the young man was on his back and being straddled, stand your ground would not apply.

        November 17, 2012 at 1:44 am | Report abuse |
    • kendra payton

      both young men got killed for no reason at all

      March 23, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. CINCEO1

    This trial has been set up to create an unrest in the community. The real facts of this case arent even being reported by the media. Trayvon Martin was lying in the morgue 3 days before this story ever hit the media. Zimmerman will get off... his father is a retired supreme court justice. But most of you didnt even know that he is a "good ol boy". You havent seen any evidence of a struggle nor have you seen the crime scene (which should have right been in front of his house). The trial is set up to be as big as OJ's and EVERYONE will be tuned in.....and when Zimmerman gets off....there will be mass riots....and several excuses for the police to declare martial law against the public. DONT BE SHOCKED WHEN THE "NOT GUILTY" VERDICT IS READ! The man hasnt even been arrested yet.

    April 10, 2012 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  7. yneemee

    Emmett Till was a victim and a hero of the civil rights era – to compare him even remotely with Trayvon Martin is a slap in the face of the civil rights movement and it's legacy.... but hey CNN slap away as you continue to inflame racial issues

    April 8, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • raceisamyth

      This is the far lefts favorite passtime. Trying so hard to make us robots of the race lie.

      April 26, 2012 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
  8. Gray

    I doesn't matter what the press/media or Zimmerman states of his race, I could care less. Zimmerman acted unwisely and will have to live with it for life, He can't go anywhere without fearing his life and well being. He has put his entire family and friends in jeopardy. However Zimmerman made statements that would steer towards racism. Your words and actions speak for themselves. Also if you’re of mixed race (many are, even some of the one's on this post who'd never admit it) you can identify to any race you posses. It's not just blacks who are affected by this it's people of all races and in many countries who will not tolerate hatred and racism of any kind, period; that is very powerful.

    April 7, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Al Bundy

    Wow, this flippin case is still news? Why does the media still show pictures of a 12 year old treyvon and a mugshot of Zimmerman? Character assassination. Trying to make this kid a blameless innocent bystander. Which he was not.

    April 7, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • madamelaverite

      I think he was. Where is the evidence Zimmerman had his head bashed in? It's certainly not seen in the video of him going down to the police station. Nary a scratch on that man, no blood on his shirt, nothing. Zimmerman is a known violent loose cannon with a history of violence. Trayvon was not. Zimmerman was told to stay in his car by authorities and not follow Trayvon. He did not. Now put yourself in the kids shoes. If some weirdo was following you, chased you down and confronted you how would you react? I believe Zimmerman was confrontational to this boy, maybe even pulled out the gun the kid struggled with him and perhaps Zimmerman his the pavement pointing the gun at the boy who was trying to wrestle the gun away while screaming help, help, help until he was shot. By the way, several forensic voice experts identify the person screaming for help AS TRAYVON. I hope ZImmerman is indicted for manslaughter and that this ridiculous "Sand your Ground" Law or "Get Away with Bloody Murder" Law is repealed.

      April 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
  10. jon

    Emmitt Till was murdered by racists, Trayvon died when he made the decission to jump on Zimmerman and bash his head in the concrete.

    April 7, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • you know.

      what a good scapegoat for blacks to point at and cry racisim.

      April 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. falconco

    Did you see the video of Jesse Jackson (on CNN), prompting blacks to wear h oodles to the voting booths?

    April 7, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jack

    were is the photo of the kid in wife beeter w/ Gold teeth.

    April 7, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. lagergeld

    Zimmerman is a brown Mestizo like the average Mexican yet CNN and the other networks keep pimping the lie that he is white to promote such BS agendas as this and to somehow twist words, journalistic accuracy, and reality itself to make some freak show tie-in to Emmett Till.

    This is Communist News Network. As you were, Comrades.

    April 7, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
  14. nothing like it

    no. it is nothing like till....till was killed due to making remarks about a white woman...today no one pays alot of attention to this anymore....even though alot of people still do not like it and mixes dont get choosen or hired in certain jobs as often as well.

    April 7, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • lagergeld

      The Till killing was justified. Too bad such things no longer happen, actually...

      April 7, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
      • Gray

        Your fear and hatred came from your ancestors, you haven't changed it, probably never will, and you will unfortunately pass it on. Not so intelligent is it? I see people like you every day and your hatred and fear shows when your not even aware; oh, thats right, you don't care.

        April 7, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
      • kendra payton

        TO: largegeld, how could you say that tills murder was justified? have you heard the story of what happend to him? and you think it's o.k wow!!!!

        March 23, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Sal Papageorgio

    What is a White Hispanic? Is Obama a African Caucasian?

    April 7, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
    • lagergeld

      Zimmerman is as white as Erik Estrada.

      April 7, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cornelius Joe II

      Eh, I was expecting it sooner!

      April 7, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Guy

    1. Zimmerman is not 'white hispanic', he's hispanic. The media simply will not let this go. He is hispanic. A black person was shot by an hispanic person while they were scuffling. There were no whites involved in this incident.

    2. The hoodie is a manufactured aspect of the event. There was no indication that it had anything to do with the way things unfolded.

    April 7, 2012 at 8:00 am | Report abuse |
    • raceisamyth

      No he isnt guy. hes nothing more than a humanbeing

      April 26, 2012 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
  17. .

    scroo cnn

    April 7, 2012 at 6:59 am | Report abuse |
  18. .

    When this is all over, I hope George Zimmerman sues the pants off of MSNBC and CNN. Especially CNN, for doctoring the 911 tapes to make it sound like he uttered a racial slur. What makes it so bizarre is the CNN commentator sitting their listening to the garbled reproduction as though it actually sounds like a human utterance.

    What a joke.

    April 7, 2012 at 6:58 am | Report abuse |
  19. nocer repins

    If you think this at all compares to emmett till, I've got bad news for you. The bad news is, you're an idiot.

    April 6, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  20. JoDell

    OK. Let me see if I got this. Teenage kid with candy in one hand and iced tea in the other one. Shot in the chest, by an adult told to stay in his house by the police. Investigation revealed blood splatter on the adult approx, to the distance he shot the kid from. Oh yeah, we do not know if the police took samples. Well go on, Investigating officer suggested arresting adult, to sort out evidence, but he is over ruled by a State Asst. AG, who realizes the suspect is a child of a sitting judge. Now I no liberal, but give me a break. Zimmerman needed to be arrested for not listening and staying in his apartment, to begin with and maybe just maybe a kid would be alive today.

    April 6, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guy

      Jo, it's good you asked for clarification, because you're clearly very confused. Zimmerman was never told to stay in his house; he was not in his house to begin with. He was told to stop following, and replied 'OK'. He was then told to meet the officers at an agreed location.

      He was also clearly not holding candy in one hand and iced tea in the other, because he was hitting Zimmerman a prostrate when he was shot. According to Zimmerman (the only source we have for that moment) Martin tried to grab Zimmerman's gun, and that was when he was shot.

      You're a good example of how well the media can paint a picture when it wants. The image of a twelve year old shot in the chest while standing with his hands full of candy and a lollipop in his mouth is now well set. The reality of a 17 year old burglar with a violent streak who attacked the neighborhood watchman who was following him is lost in the fog of deception.

      April 7, 2012 at 8:11 am | Report abuse |
      • Done

        wow talk about racist and idiotic. You know that kid to be a burgular now?

        April 7, 2012 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  21. c

    Dear CNN, how about a current picture of Trayvon? This one is what when he was 13 or 14? Also, while it was horribly tragic that he was shot, where is the survelience video of him buying the candy and soda? That would give us an accurate and current picture of Trayvon. How can the girl he was on the phone with possibley know he was 'pushed becaue his ear piece fell out" Wouldnt his phone still be on, and wouldnt she still hear him talking to Mr Zimmerman? No one is looking at both sides of this story. It was poor judgement for Zimmerman to bring his gun. He should be charged with involuntary manslaughter. But the way the politicians are blowing this out of proportion is irresponsible. If Sharpton, Jackson, Waters, Jackson Lee, and the rest are truly concerned about our black youth, go down to New Orleans where black kids are killing black kids every single day. Go help them for petes sake !!

    April 5, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Tucano Fulano

      Till wasn't 10 years old when he died, and neither was 'what's his name'.

      April 5, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • michwill

      what difference does it make what he looked like you need to get over yourself

      April 7, 2012 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
  22. Gary

    Z. is a self-confessed liar. He told the police that he told Trayvon that he wasn't following him, only moments before he took off on foot after him. The police told this to the the victim's family. Had he had any class, the foolishness would have ended there.

    April 5, 2012 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
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