Comparisons have been made of Trayvon Martin’s homicide to little Emmett Till’s. They’re not even close.
This year (published originally in 2005; Till was murdered in 1955) marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy murdered in Mississippi by two white men for whistling at a white woman. Emmett’s death is one of the most famous of unresolved civil rights era murders.
There have been many views on the circumstances of Till’s murder. Have you heard a feminist view? Listen to one by radical white feminist Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 tract Against Our Will (in the excerpt, I have emphasized in bold the words that I think expose Brownmiller’s pernicious antimale thinking):
It took the “wolf whistle” murder of Emmett Till to shock the entire nation into seeing the Southern white man’s property code for what it was. Amid a traceable pattern of retaliatory strikes, death sentences and lynchings that went unpunished. Nothing in recent times can match it for sheer outrageousness, for indefensible overkill with community support. Old patterns die and new ones rise to take their place. In the following decade a new movement for civil rights forced the South to reorder its priorities and placed the battle to preserve the old way of life on grounds apart from the white woman’s body. The murder of Till, we can see now in retrospect, came toward the end of a definable era. It was the landmark case of white male retaliation for black male transgression. In a sense, it broke the mold.
In August 1955, a fisherman pulled the decomposed body — a dead black boy — out of the Tallahatchie River. The corpse bore signs of a terrible beating and the face was mutilated beyond recognition. A ring on one finger led to a positive identification: Emmett Louis Till, fourteen years old, who had come to the rural hamlet of Money, Mississippi, from Chicago to spend a summer vacation with his uncle. There was little mystery in town as to who killed Emmett Till and why. Two white men, J. W. Millam and his half brother, Boy Bryant, were promptly arrested.
Since the facts in the Till case were never in serious dispute, even by Millam and Bryant after a jury found them not guilty, a straightforward story can be told. Till, nicknamed Bobo, had been regaling the black youth of Money with tales of his exploits with white girls up North, proudly displaying the picture of one girl he carried in his wallet. His skeptical buddies dared the Chicago braggart to walk into Bryant’s general store at the crossroads and ask the lady who was alone behind the counter, Bryant’s young wife, for a date. According to a telescoped version provided by William Bradford Huie, who wrote several articles and a book about the Till case, “While the Delta Negroes peered, in delicious awe, through the front windows, Bobo took the dare; Carolyn Bryant chased him with a pistol and, in a gesture of adolescent bravado, Bobo ‘wolf-whistled’ at her.”
At two o’clock the next morning, Millam and Bryant strode into his uncle’s shack on a tenant farm and ordered Till to go with them. As Huie got the story from the unrepentant half brothers, the white men intended only to rough up the boy and send him packing to Chicago but Till did not display the proper cowering attitude. Instead, he repeated his brag about having “had” white women. Enraged, Millam shot him in the head with his Army .45. The two men tied a weight around Till’s neck and dumped him in the Tallahatchie.
An all-male, all-white jury (women were excluded by law from Mississippi juries until 1968) acquitted Millam and Bryant after an hour’s deliberation, accepting the defense contention that there was no real proof that the body from the river was actually Till’s. In a courtroom tableau preserved for posterity by a news photographer, Millam chomped on big cigar as the two half brothers embraced their wives.
Never again was the Southern white man’s property code so blatantly expressed. Four years after the murder of Till, Mack Charles Parker would be dragged from a jail cell in Poplarville, Mississippi, two days before his scheduled trial for rape, but Parker’s murder was an anticlimactic echo to the whistle hear round the world.
Rarely has one single case exposed so clearly as Till’s the underlying group-male antagonisms over access to women, for what began in Bryant’s store should not be misconstrued as an innocent flirtation. Till’s action was more than a kid’s brash prank and his murder was more than a husband’s revenge. The scene that was acted out in Money, Mississippi, had all the elements of a classical Greek drama. Emmett Till was going to show his black buddies that he, and inference, they, could get a white woman and Carolyn Bryant was the nearest convenient object. In concrete terms, the accessibility of all white women was on review. This is how it must have been perceived by Till’s companions, who set him up with some degree of cruelty and then, sensing that things had gone too far, called him off. And we know this is how it was perceived by Millam and Bryant. “Hell,” Millam told William Bradford Huie when he recalled the night of the murder. “He showed me the white gal’s picture. Bragged o’ what he’d done to her! What else could I do? No use letting him get no bigger!”
And what of the wolf whistle, Till’s “gesture of adolescent bravado”? We are rightly aghast that a whistle could be cause for murder but we must also accept that Emmett Till and J. W. Millam shared something in common. They both understood that the whistle was no small tweet of hubba-hubba or melodious approval for a well-turned ankle. Given the deteriorated situation — she with a pistol in her hand, he scampering back to safety with his buddies — it was a deliberate insult just short of physical assault, a last reminder to Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in mind to possess her.
A murder for a wolf whistle and a jury that refused to convict. The Till case became a lesson of instruction to an entire generation of appalled Americans. I know how I reacted. At age twenty and for a period of fifteen years after the murder of Emmett Till whenever a black teenager whistled at me on a New York City street or uttered in passing one of several variations on an invitation to congress, I smiled my nicest smile of comradely equality — no supersensitive flower of white womanhood, I — a largess I extended with equal sincerity to white construction workers, truck drivers, street-corner cowboys, indeed, to any and all who let me know from a safe distance their theoretical intent. After all, were not women for flirting? Wasn’t a whistle or a murmured “May I fuck you?” an innocent compliment? And did not white women in particular have to bear the white man’s burden of making amends for Southern racism? It took fifteen years for me to resolve these questions in my own mind, and to understand the insult implicit in Emmett Till’s whistle, the depersonalized challenge of “I can have you” with or without the racial aspect. Today a sexual remark on the street causes within me a fleeting but murderous rage.
Pardon me, but it sure seems that the vile, radical feminist Brownmiller blames the victim, Till, for his own murder. And she borders on suggesting that perhaps Bryant’s wife, instead of Bryant, who sought to protect not his “property” but his Southern wife’s “honor,” had plenty of reason herself to murder Till.
Brownmiller attributes to Till the maturity and reasoning capacity of an adult. That done, she is able, at least in her mind, to put Till on a level of evil equal to that of Millam and Bryant. She then permits herself to fault him for “fully understanding” that his intention in the “wolf whistle” was to “possess the white woman.” Was Brownmiller somehow able, like psychics who “hear” the dead, to verify for certain what this very young boy’s intention was? Or is it that Brownmiller understands the underlying motivations behind male behavior better than males themselves do?
What she refused to factor in is that Till was only 14 years old. He was a child, for God’s sakes — 14 maybe going on 12! He hardly could have known what he was doing and what the consequences of his behavior would be. Every adult black male in that era fully understood the seriousness of racism enough not to whistle at a white woman, and definitely not to try to “possess her.” The 14-year-olds of the time very likely did not.
Here’s the question that Brownmiller was rendered blind to by her murderous, anti-male rage toward little Till: How could this child have known what his wolf-whistle meant any better than the adult Carolyn Bryant knew what her identifying Till meant in the violently racist times of the mid-’50s?
Considering how entrenched and vile Brownmiller’s anti-male ideology apparently still is, I can’t help but believe that if poor Till came back and whistled at her, he’d be murdered all over again.
So it is also deeply troubling that Brownmiller continues to be regarded by many in the mainstream media and the feminist community as an important, influential leader. Even more troubling is that, to my knowledge, Brownmiller has yet to apologize for demonizing young Till; in fact, she still denies any wrongdoing.
This is just one more example of why I so strongly oppose ideological feminists. Underneath, they are not feminists. They are sexists.
For other reactions to Brownmiller’s description of Emmett Till, see:
“Women, Race, & Class” (contains racist/sexist comments by another feminist, Diana Russell, author of “Politics of Rape”)
When Susan Brownmiller, who grew up to be a feminist author and activist, heard about the Emmett Till case, her response was a paradigmatic — indeed, self-parodic — one for an educated, middle-class, liberal white girl: she smiled kindly on any black boy or man who whistled at her, eager to show that she believed in equality between the races. But by the time she wrote Against Our Will, a history of rape, in 1975, Brownmiller had arrived at a very different take on the Till case: “Emmett Till and J W Milam shared something in common. They both understood that the whistle… was a deliberate insult just short of physical assault, a last reminder to Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in mind to possess her.”
The reaction was furious. Brownmiller was denounced by Angela Davis and accused, by the Southern Conference Educational Fund, of having written “a dangerous… book, which… will fan the fires of racism”. Later, in her 1999 memoir In Our Time, Brownmiller softened her observation to: “Till and the men who lynched him shared something in common: a perception of the white woman as the white man’s property,” and dismissed charges that her opinion condoned the murder.
Info about, and song tribute to, young Emmett Till
This was originally published at my previous blog in 2005.