From Emmett Till to George Floyd

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Several years ago a man called me and apologized for taking my time, but explained he had to speak with me since he was writing about the Emmett Till murder trial and “you are the only one who was there who is still alive.”

I am still here, and I now see headlines comparing the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis to that of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955.

Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago who had gone to the Mississippi Delta to visit his grandfather, accused of the crime of whistling at a white woman, was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.

George Floyd, a 46 year-old man rumored to have passed a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill at a convenience store was found beneath the knee of a policeman who stared unblinking at a photographic lens as he pressed the life out of a man’s neck.

In both cases, when worldwide attention was brought to the crime – the journalists from around the country who crowded the stifling Mississippi courthouse, and the protestors who filled the streets of cities throughout the U.S. and the world last week – “outside agitators” were blamed. In Mississippi, the defense attorney suggested the ring found on Emmett Till’s body that identified him was planted there by the agents of some sinister group that was trying to destroy the social order of the South and “widen the gap between the white and the colored people of the United States.”

No group needed to be named, since the local rumor was that the whole Till affair was a plot of the NAACP. I was not surprised when Trump blamed Antifa for the protests, but my favorite response was the United States Senator Tina Smith from Minnesota suggesting that “anarchists” were behind the rioting. Have Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman returned to haunt the streets of America?

The defense attorney in the Till case told the jurors in his summation that he had faith that “every last Anglo Saxon one of you men in this jury has the courage to set these men free.” For many years I thought that the term, “Anglo-sSxon” would never be used again as a rallying cry in American politics – until Trump came along.

What we are now being made to finally face is the fact that slavery is our national legacy, embedded in our way of life. In my report on the Till trial sixty-five years ago in The Nation I wrote that the Delta town of Sumner, Mississippi, where the trial was held, was “based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

It is not just the South and it is no longer cotton; the American dream is based on the nightmare of racial suppression. The pandemic provides a rough map of who is free.

More articles by:

Dan Wakefield covered civil rights for The Nation from 1955-1963. His books include New York in the Fifties and Going All the Way. Wakefield’s other writing can be found on his website.

Weekend Edition
August 07, 2020
Friday - Sunday
John Davis
The COVID Interregnum
Louis Yako
20 Postcard Notes From Iraq: With Love in the Age of COVID-19
Patrick Cockburn
War and Pandemic Journalism: the Truth Can Disappear Fast
Eve Ottenberg
Fixing the COVID Numbers
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Every Which Way to Lose
Paul Street
Trump is Not Conceding: This is Happening Here
Robert Hunziker
The World on Fire
Rob Urie
Neoliberal Centrists and the American Left
John Laforge
USAF Vet Could Face ‘20 Days for 20 Bombs’ for Protest Against US H-Bombs Stationed in Germany
Andrew Levine
Clyburn’s Complaint
Kavaljit Singh
Revisiting the Idea of Pigou Wealth Tax in the Time of Covid-19
Paul Ryder
Here Come the 1968 Mistakes Again
T.J. Coles
Fighting Over Kashmir Could Blow Up the Planet
David Macaray
Haven’t We All Known Guys Who Were Exactly like Donald Trump?
Conn Hallinan
What’s Driving the Simmering Conflict Between India and China
Joseph Natoli
American Failures: August, 2020
Ramzy Baroud
Apartheid or One State: Has Jordan Broken a Political Taboo?
Bruce Hobson
The US Left Needs Humility to Understand Mexican Politics
David Rosen
Easy Targets: Trump’s Attacks on Transgendered People
Ben Debney
The Neoliberal Virus
Evelyn Leopold
Is Netanyahu Serious About Annexing Jordan Valley?
Nicky Reid
When the Chickens Came Home to Roost In Portlandistan
Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj
The Power of the White Man and His Symbols is Being De-Mystified
Kathy Kelly
Reversal: Boeing’s Flow of Blood
Brian Kelly
Ireland and Slavery: Framing Irish Complicity in the Slave Trade
Ariela Ruiz Caro
South American Nations Adopt Different COVID-19 Stategies, With Different Results
Ron Jacobs
Exorcism at Boston’s Old West Church, All Hallows Eve 1971
J.P. Linstroth
Bolsonaro’s Continuous Follies
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
Right-Wing Populism and the End of Democracy
Dean Baker
Trump’s Real Record on Unemployment in Two Graphs
Michael Welton
Listening, Conflict and Citizenship
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump Is The Only One Who Should Be Going To School This Fall
John Feffer
America’s Multiple Infections
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Thinking Outside the Social Media Echo Chamber
Andrea Mazzarino
The Military is Sick
John Kendall Hawkins
How the Middle Half Lives
Graham Peebles
The Plight of Refugees and Migrant Workers under Covid
Robert P. Alvarez
The Next Coronavirus Bill Must Protect the 2020 Election
Greg Macdougall
Ottawa Bluesfest at Zib: Development at Sacred Site Poses Questions of Responsibility
CounterPunch News Service
Tensions Escalate as Logging Work Commences Near Active Treesits in a Redwood Rainforest
Louis Proyect
The Low Magic of Charles Bukowski
Gloria Oladipo
Rural America Deserves a Real COVID-19 Response
Binoy Kampmark
Crossing the Creepy Line: Google, Deception and the ACCC
Marc Norton
Giants and Warriors Give Their Workers the Boot
David Yearsley
Celebration of Change