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Emmett Till and the Dark Path to Aug. 28, 1963

Emmett Till and the Dark Path to Aug. 28, 1963

By Carl M. Cannon - August 28, 2013

Millions of words have been written this week (some by me) about the 1963 March on Washington, and of Martin Luther King’s electrifying benediction that brought the day’s events to a close. But August 28 was also the anniversary of another seminal event in civil rights history, a grim stain on the state of Mississippi: the 1955 racial murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

This case has been back in the news this year, mainly because Emmett Till's name was invoked in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death. On its face, that comparison seems infelicitous. Although Trayvon’s shooting was tragic, evidence at trial revealed his killer, George Zimmerman, is not a racist, but instead a bungling busy-body who found himself losing a fight to Trayvon so badly he pulled his gun. A jury found enough reasonable doubt to acquit Zimmerman on grounds of self-defense.

Evidence at the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers was that the youth was hauled out of bed after midnight by armed men who forced their way into his uncle’s house, kidnapped the boy, tortured him, shot him, and threw his body into a river—all for the supposed transgression of speaking impolitely to a white woman. An all-white jury acquitted the woman’s husband and another white defendant after their lawyers told jurors, “Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men in this jury has the courage to set these men free.”

Because of the victim’s tender age and the triviality of his supposed transgression, Emmett Till’s murder made national headlines and fueled the civil rights movement. Bob Dylan, who attended the march along with many other top-name celebrities, wrote a song about it. But Southern blacks knew that this wasn’t an isolated instance.

On May 7, 1955, a prominent African-American pastor named George Washington Lee was fatally shotgunned, apparently by two Klansmen, while driving his Buick near his home in Belzoni, Miss. Largely overlooked today, Lee was an early martyr in the movement. He had insisted on registering to vote and was leading the efforts to register other blacks in the Mississippi Delta. (At his funeral, Lee’s widow ordered his casket be opened to show the effects of shotgun pellets to the face—a rebuttal to the official version that Lee died in a car accident. This open-casket tactic would be emulated by Emmett Till’s mother.)

One of the young civil rights activists who pushed for federal authorities to investigate Lee’s killing was Medgar Evers. Also among the many mourners at Lee’s funeral was 62-year-old Lamar Smith, a black farmer and World War I veteran who was registering blacks to vote in his home of Brookhaven, Miss. Within weeks, both would be murdered for their civil rights activities, too.

Similar outrages were happening across the South, most especially in Alabama, as those assembled on the National Mall on this date 50 years ago knew only too well.

Today, when most of us think of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address, we recall the soaring and optimistic language, with its rich religiosity, that formed a crescendo at the speech’s climax. But there were other, less uplifting, allusions in King’s speech, and in the speeches of everyone else that day. These references were to the police brutality, lynching, intimidation, beatings, and murders that were sanctioned, one way or another, by a system known as “Jim Crow,” which was really American apartheid enforced by the threats or acts of violence committed with impunity against blacks.

This is what the Rev. George W. Lee had in mind when he sermonized shortly before his death, “Pray not for your mom and pop—they’ve gone to heaven. Pray you can make it through this hell.” And it’s what many in the crowd were referencing when they sang “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington and a thousand other demonstrations.

This was why John Lewis, leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, wanted to deliver an even more militant speech on August 28, 1963; it’s why Malcolm X, also in Washington 50 years ago today, was so dismissive of the marchers; and it’s why Martin Luther King twice mentioned “police brutality” in his famous speech, along with other degradations and attacks against African-Americans. He also spoke of the “marvelous new militancy” sweeping through the black community, while issuing a blunt warning to Jim Crow and Washington lawmakers alike.

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment,” King said. “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”

As a writer, King embraced both alliteration and far-flung geographic allusions, all the more so when he began riffing away from his prepared text. Thus his listeners could be mesmerized not just by “every hill and molehill of Mississippi,” but also by the “mighty mountains of New York,” the “snow-capped Rockies of Colorado,” and the “curvaceous slopes of California.”

Such phrasings assisted King in formulating his hypnotic cadences, while geographic inclusion reminded audiences that racism was not a problem confined to the South. Even so, there was one curious reference in the “I Have a Dream” speech.

“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote,” he intoned, “and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” Mentioning New York in that context seems like a throwaway line. But in the context of police conduct toward blacks it was certainly not extraneous—and remains relevant to this day.

On August 28, 1963, one of the Northerners listening to King’s speech was 18-year-old George Whitmore Jr. of Wildwood, N.J. That same day, at the very hour Martin Luther King was speaking on the National Mall, two young women who shared an apartment in Manhattan were brutally stabbed to death by an intruder. They were Janice Wylie, a 21-year-old researcher at Newsweek magazine, and Emily Hoffert, 23, a schoolteacher, and their deaths became a prominent crime story.

Seven months later, Whitmore, an African-American drifter with a limited IQ, was picked out of a photo lineup by a woman who had been assaulted. It would turn out that the complaining witnesses’ identification was mistaken, but before that case could be unraveled, Brooklyn police beat Whitmore, interrogated him for hours, fed him details about the Manhattan murders and finally extracted a false confession to the Wylie-Hoffert killings and a third slaying as well. The defendant immediately recanted, but was convicted and put on Death Row.

Eventually, the facts were sorted out, and the real killer imprisoned. The case played a decisive role in the Supreme Court Miranda ruling, as well as New York’s abandonment of capital punishment, and spawned the “Kojak” television series—but not before George Whitmore spent nine years in prison.

Even then, it only happened because a dedicated journalist named Selwyn Raab didn’t accept the official version. The doubts Raab’s reporting cast on the conviction hinged on Whitmore’s alibi—and the fact that a dozen witnesses could back it up. They remembered Whitmore being in Wildwood, N.J., on the day in question because it was the date of Martin Luther King’s great speech. It was all anybody in their circle was talking about that day, they recalled. They had the dream, too. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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