On December 6, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had closed an investigation into the 1955 murder of black teenager Emmett Till. The case reopened in 2018, a year after the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act (the Till Act) was approved by Congress allowing crimes against Blacks committed before 1970 to be re-examined.
Till’s murder is often referred to as the “spark” for the US Civil Rights Movement. The photo of his disfigured face, which his mother insisted on showing through an open coffin funeral, caused nationwide outrage. The reopening of his case would have been an opportunity to bring justice to his family, which they were denied when the white men accused of his murder – Roy Bryant and JW Milam – were first tried in 1955.
The two are now dead, but the woman who inspired the murder, Carolyn Bryant Donham, is still alive. A 2017 book quoted her as refuting her allegations that Till made physical sexual advances, which led to her husband, Roy, and his half-brother Milam killing the 14-year-old boy.
The DOJ’s decision to close Till’s case without prosecuting her reflects not only America’s indifference to murders of black boys and men, but also its inability to hold white women accountable for their role in anti. -Black violence.
White femininity and keeping black men ‘in place’
Sixty-six years ago, Till’s mutilated body was captured 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 grabbed her and intended to rape her – something she allegedly was not true in an interview set out in Tim Tyson’s 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till.
A year after the 1955 ruling, 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… and scare a little sense into him,” but Till’s refusal to show any signs of fear and to know his place forced them to to kill him.
Milam put it bluntly: “I like n **** rs – in their place… I just decided it was time for some people to be notified. As long as I live and can do anything about it, n **** rs will stay in their place… And when a **** r comes close to having sex with a white woman, he’s tired of life. I’ll probably kill him. “
Keeping Black men in their place was central to how white America enforced anti-Black racism and designed segregation during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the end of the Civil War in the 1860s to the late 1960s. It was a deliberate social hierarchy made to keep black men out of society, while white men allowed sexual access to white and black women.
Till’s murder and the subsequent murders of black men and boys by lynch mob have never been about the guilt or innocence of the accused. Lynching is a form of racial terrorism designed to thwart Black people’s struggle for equality and civil rights.
Race relations scholar John Dollard noted in his 1939 study of southern towns that white Southerners believed that the two most heinous offenses a Black man could ever commit were trying to gain economic independence from whites or a white woman. to rape.
During the Jim Crow era, a charge of “reckless eyeball,” in which a Black man could look at a white woman or insinuate sexual interest in her for more than a few seconds, was considered rape and punishable by death. To protect white femininity, it was thought that any degree of violence was justified – including lynching.
It is important to recognize that not only did white women commit some of the most heinous crimes against black men in the United States, but they also committed violence against black men. They organized lynchings and defended Jim Crow era policies.
In this sense, it’s hard to see how Donham is not to blame for Till’s murder. She knew that accusing a Black boy of intending to rape a white woman would inspire white men to lynch him and the lynching would be considered justifiable by a white society.
The DOJ’s decision not to bring charges for Till’s murder should not have been based solely on whether or not Donham withdrew her testimony. Even her more serious allegations about what Till did were not offenses that justified his murder. The DOJ’s refusal to try her as an accomplice to the murder leaves her actions inciting the murder of a young Black boy unpunished.
Jim Crow echoes today
The DOJ’s decision came more than a decade after another re-examination of Till’s case, this time by the FBI, led to the same result. In 2007, a Mississippi jury, which unfortunately did not present all the evidence against Donham, decided not to charge her with murder.
These repeated failures by U.S. authorities to bring justice to the murder of a Black boy allow white America to find solace in the knowledge that the deadly racism of Black men during the Jim Crow era still has money today.
It is no wonder that today, in a society several decades removed from Jim Crow, the lynching of black men and boys continues, whether in the form of police killings or vigilante murders. And from time to time, the justice system and the white public choose to rationalize these violent deaths as necessary and justifiable.
The failure to prosecute Donham also confirmed that white femininity in the US is inviolable and irresponsible for the violence it perpetrates against black men and boys. And white women know it. In recent years, a series of incidents that reflect the shameless use of white femininity’s privilege, posted on social media, have given rise to the so-called “Karen” meme – a collective image of a privileged white woman who observed her use use vulnerability to call the police against an individual of color or a group she wants targeted.
In one of these incidents, Amy Cooper, a white woman, was taped while calling police about Christian Cooper, a black man who criticized her for walking with her dog without a leash in New York’s Central Park walked. During the call, the woman allegedly attacked and requested urgent help. She is facing charges of filing a false police report, but this was dropped after she completed a “therapeutic program” addressing racial prejudice.
Amy Cooper, like Donham, was well aware of the potentially violent effect of her words. In a country where black men are three times more likely to be killed by the police compared to white men, a meeting with NYPD officials could have been a violent, if not fatal, outcome for Christian Cooper.
Jim Crow tropes of Black men as inherently violent, prey on vulnerable white women, who constantly need protection, are clearly still alive. Indeed, the Jim Crow era may be over on paper, but its spirit lives on in American society. Black people are still being killed with impunity and are still struggling so often to gain access to justice.
In fact, in recent years, there has been a showy rollback of black civil rights, dismantling of affirmative action initiatives, increase in black poverty and unemployment, and the emergence of explicit white supremacist political platforms at the state and national levels. In this context, the failure to provide justice for Till’s murder reflects a white society that in turn commits itself to public display of white supremacy and racial violence against Black people.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.