On December 6, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had closed an investigation into the 1955 murder of black teenager Emmett Till. The case was reopened in 2018, a year after Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act (the Till Act) authorizing the re-investigation of crimes against blacks committed before 1970.
Till’s murder is often referred to as the “spark” of the civil rights movement in the United States. The photo of his disfigured face, which his mother had insisted on showing at an open coffin funeral, sparked outrage across the country. Reopening his case would have been an opportunity to do justice to his family, which he had been denied in the first trial of white men accused of his murder – Roy Bryant and JW Milam – in 1955.
Both are now dead, but the woman who inspired the murder, Carolyn Bryant Donham, is still alive. A 2017 book quoted her retracting her claims that Till made physical sexual advances, which led her husband, Roy, and stepbrother Milam to kill the 14-year-old boy.
The DOJ’s decision to close Till’s case without charging him reflects not only America’s continued indifference to the murders of black boys and men, but also its failure to hold white women accountable for them. role in anti-black violence.
White femininity and keeping black men “in their place”
Sixty-six years ago, Till’s mutilated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Roy Bryant and Milam were arrested and tried for the murder, but an all-white jury acquitted them. In that trial, Donham testified that Till had caught her and intended to rape her – something she allegedly said was not true in a detailed interview in Tim Tyson’s 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till.
A year after the 1955 verdict, Bryant and Milam admitted to killing Till in an interview with Look magazine. In their confession, they said their original intention was to “just whip him … and scare him”, but Till’s refusal to show signs of fear and “know his place” forced them to kill him.
Milam said it clearly: “I like n **** rs – in their place… I just decided it was time for a few people to warn. As long as I live and can do something about it, the n **** rs will stay in their place… And when a **** r is about to mention sex with a white woman, he is fed up with to live. I am likely to kill him.
Keeping black men in their place was at the heart of how White America imposed anti-black racism and engineered segregation during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the end of the Civil War into the 1860s. in the late 1960s. It was a deliberate social hierarchy made to keep black men out of society, while still allowing white men sexual access to both white and black women.
The murder of Till and the subsequent murders of black men and boys by lynchers have never addressed the guilt or innocence of the accused. Lynching is a form of racial terrorism designed to stop blacks’ struggle for equality and civil rights.
Race relations scholar John Dollard noted in his 1939 Southern Cities Study that White Southerners believed that the two most egregious offenses a black man could ever commit were to try to get economic independence of whites or raping a white woman.
In Jim Crow’s day, a charge of “reckless gaze”, in which a black man could stare at a white woman for more than a few seconds or imply sexual interest in her, was considered rape and punishable by death. . To protect white femininity, any degree of violence was considered justified, including lynching.
It’s important to recognize that white women have not only justified some of the most heinous crimes against black men in the United States, but have committed violence against black men themselves. They organized lynchings and defended the policies of the Jim Crow era.
In that sense, it’s hard to see how Donham isn’t to blame for Till’s murder. She knew that accusing a black boy of intending to rape a white woman would lead white men to lynch him and that the lynching would be seen as justifiable by white society.
The DOJ’s decision not to lay charges for Till’s murder shouldn’t have been based solely on whether Donham recanted or not. Even his most serious claims about what Till did were not offenses that justified his murder. The DOJ’s refusal to try her as an accomplice in murder allows her actions of inciting the murder of a young black boy to go unpunished.
Jim Crow echoes today
The DOJ’s decision came more than a decade after another investigation into Till’s case, this time by the FBI, yielded the same result. In 2007, a Mississippi jury, which unfortunately did not present all the evidence against Donham, decided not to charge him with murder.
These repeated failures by US authorities to do justice for the murder of a black boy give white America some solace in the knowledge that the deadly racialization of black men during the Jim Crow era continues today.
It is no wonder that today, in a society decades far from Jim Crow, the lynching of black men and boys continues, whether in the form of police assassinations or murder of police officers. vigilantes. And every now and then the justice system and white public choose to rationalize these violent deaths as necessary and justifiable.
The failure to indict Donham also confirmed that white femininity in the United States is unassailable and inexplicable for the violence it exercises against black men and boys. And white women know it. In recent years, a series of incidents reflecting the shameless use of white femininity privilege, which have been publicized on social media, have resulted in the so-called “Karen” meme – a collective image of a woman. privileged white woman who uses her perception of vulnerability to summon the police against an individual of color or a group she wants to target.
In one such incident, Amy Cooper, a white woman, was recorded calling the police on Christian Cooper, a black man who had criticized her for walking his dog off leash in New York’s Central Park. . During the call, the woman pretended to be assaulted and asked for urgent help. She was accused of filing a false police report, but these were dropped after completing a “therapy program” to tackle racial prejudice.
Amy Cooper, like Donham, was well aware of the potentially violent effect of his words. In a country where black men are three times more likely to be killed by police than white men, an encounter with NYPD agents may have had a violent, even fatal, outcome for Christian Cooper.
Jim Crow’s tropes that black men are inherently violent, preying on vulnerable white women, who are in constant need of protection, are clearly still alive. Indeed, the Jim Crow era may be over on paper, but its spirit lives on in American society. Blacks are still murdered with impunity and so often still find it difficult to access justice.
In fact, in recent years there has been a conspicuous decline in black civil rights, a decimation of affirmative action initiatives, an increase in black poverty and unemployment, and the emergence of political platforms. explicitly white supremacists at state and national levels. In this context, the failure to deliver justice for Till’s murder reflects a white society re-engaging in public protests of white supremacy and racial violence against blacks.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.