By De’sean Markley, Columnist
In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American teenager, was brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman. The men responsible for the murder were acquitted by an all-white jury. Emmett’s case has not been forgotten, especially by the African-American community. When I was twelve years old, my grandfather sat me down and shared Emmett’s tale with me in an effort to explain the inequality that my people have faced and seemingly continue to face in regards to the legal system. For African-Americans, Emmett Till’s case is as essential to know as knowing one’s left from right. Many interpret this heinous act as the catalyst that set off the Civil Rights Movement, and for that his legacy lives on forever in the hearts of many African-Americans.
It is for this very reason that when his name appeared on the news in recent weeks, I was immediately drawn to it. Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman who accused Emmett Till of vocally and physically assaulting her, remained silent before the public for decades. Her testimony detailing Emmett’s actions against her were only told to the judge. She claimed that Emmett, visiting family in Mississippi from his hometown of Chicago, vocally and physically assaulted her. The jury was not privy to this information; however, without hearing the facts from the supposed victim’s defense, they still chose to acquit the white men who brutally ended Emmett Till’s life.
Recently, Carolyn Bryant Donham, now 82, revealed that her previous statements that claim Emmett Till was sexually crude towards her “[are] not true” to Timothy B. Tyson. Tyson is writing a book on Emmett Till called “The Blood of Emmett Till.” How a human being could deliver a false testimony about a child, and then withhold such important information for six decades after his death, ultimately obstructing the justice that those men who killed Till deserved, repulses me. However, her admittance to her mistake is a step in a positive direction. Though I think it would be wrong to punish her this late in life for her act of atonement, this does not mean that there are not still entities to blame. The justice system wronged Emmett Till and his family just as much as, if not more than, Carolyn Bryant Donham did by denying him due process and perpetuating a broken system.
The system is still broken today. African-Americans are still 2.5 times as likely to get arrested for a crime compared to white Americans, even if they both commit the same crime. Just as in the mid 1950’s, there is still an implicit bias within law enforcement, juries and the judiciary that has been internalized throughout the entire justice system. Though, unlike in the 1950’s where racism was a legitimate excuse to allow three murderers to go free, racism is now hidden rather than overt, and revolves around poor education, poverty and unemployment. These things have plagued and still plague the African-American community. Thus, what I ask of the Furman community is to simply be aware of these pressing issues. If you are called onto a jury, please remember to be accepting, understanding and alert to all details and to cast your vote based on fact, not bias.