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Workers Vanguard No. 852

5 August 2005

The Lynching of Emmett Till and the Fight for Black Liberation

50 Years Later

"Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me—the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears.... I didn't know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough, I thought."

—Anne Moody, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Organizer, 14 years old in 1955, in Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)

Fifty years ago this month the name Emmett Louis Till became synonymous with the brutal American tradition of lynching. Till was only 14 years old that summer when he left his home in Chicago to join his cousin on a trip to stay with relatives in Mississippi. Within days of his arrival, young Emmett was kidnapped, tortured and brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till's gruesome murder, and his mother's courageous campaign to ensure that the world saw at first hand the stark reality of race-terror by displaying her son's mutilated body at his funeral, provoked horror and outrage against racist oppression in America. The lynching of Emmett Till, along with Rosa Parks' defiant stand in Montgomery, Alabama in December of that same year, were key in galvanizing many thousands to join the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Today, a half-century later, black people still sit in the cross hairs of this bloody capitalist ruling class. The explosive struggles of the civil rights movement smashed Jim Crow segregation in the South and broke the back of the anti-Communist McCarthy era. But the social reality remains—black oppression is the cornerstone of capitalist class rule in America. Contrary to assertions that the worst abuses against black people are a thing of the past, a quick survey of the massive prison population, unemployment, miserable ghetto conditions, poverty, deteriorating health care and increasingly segregated schools proves the opposite, not only in the South but throughout the country.

The current federal investigation of the Emmett Till atrocity is one of a handful of decades-old cases reopened beginning with the 1994 conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. One reason these cases are being opened is to polish the tarnished image of the South. But union-busting "right to work" laws, attacks on black voting rights, Ku Klux Klan terror like the cross-burnings in Durham, North Carolina this May along with Confederate flags, monuments and Dixie anthems still mark the landscape of the "New South." Meanwhile, Northern ghettos trap black people into holding pens, and kill-crazy cops stalk the streets.

Bush's Republican regime pushes ahead to wipe out the remaining gains of the civil rights movement that had been under attack by Democratic as well as Republican administrations for the last three decades. On the heels of the government launching a vindictive IRS tax investigation of the NAACP, the chairman of the Republican National Committee cynically professed at the NAACP's convention in July, which Bush refused to attend, that the Republican Party's decades-long campaign of courting the racist Southern vote away from the Democrats by opposing civil rights legislation, the "Southern Strategy," was "wrong."

The re-opening of Till's case was largely sparked by the determined nine-year effort of a young filmmaker, Keith Beauchamp, and his 2002 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. The Feds recently exhumed Till's body to seek forensic evidence, additionally claiming it is necessary to verify that it was indeed Till in the grave. The only people who ever cast doubt on this question were the defenders of the lynchers. For America's capitalist rulers, such re-investigations are nothing more than hypocritical attempts to foster the illusion that today's FBI and Department of Justice are different from the very same state institutions that worked hand in hand with the Klan in the South. By the mid 1960s, nearly 20 percent of Klan members were FBI "informants" serving as loyal double agents of both organizations. Even when the Senate passed a meaningless resolution this June apologizing for never passing anti-lynching legislation, several senators, including the two from Mississippi, refused to sponsor the bill.

Capitalism is a system based on exploitation of labor, and, in the U.S., a unique and critical mainstay continues to be the subjugation of the black population at the bottom of society. American Trotskyist Richard Fraser wrote in the same year that Emmett Till was murdered: "The dual nature of the Negro struggle arises from the fact that a whole people regardless of class distinction are the victims of discrimination. This problem of a whole people can be solved only through the proletarian revolution, under the leadership of the working class" ("For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Struggle," January 1955). We of the Spartacist League base our program for black liberation upon Fraser's perspective of revolutionary integrationism, premised on the understanding that black freedom requires smashing the capitalist system and constructing an egalitarian socialist society. One of our founding documents written at the time of the ghetto upheavals of the 1960s states:

"The Negro people are an oppressed race-color caste, in the main comprising the most exploited layer of the American working class. Because of the generations of exceptional oppression, degradation and humiliation, Black people as a group have special needs and problems necessitating additional and special forms of struggle. It is this part of the struggle which has begun today, and from which the most active and militant sections of Black people will gain a deep education and experience in the lessons of struggle. Because of their position as both the most oppressed and also the most conscious and experienced section, revolutionary black workers are slated to play an exceptional role in the coming American revolution."

—"Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom," 1967, Marxist Bulletin No. 9

The Lynching of Emmett Till

By all accounts Emmett Till was an amazing kid. He was bright, fun-loving and considerate. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (earlier known as Mamie Till Bradley), and her family had migrated from Mississippi along with hundreds of thousands of other black farmers and sharecroppers fleeing the Jim Crow South in hopes of finding a better life in the "Promised Land" known as Chicago. She knew firsthand the strict social and racial codes of the South that literally spelled life or death if not followed to the letter. So, when she reluctantly allowed Emmett to accompany his cousin Wheeler to Mississippi, she did her best to instill some sense of the dangers and she recounted that she held "the talk that every black parent had with every child sent down South back then" (Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, 2003).

By the summer of 1955, white racists in Mississippi were seething in bitterness in the aftermath of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which opened the door for integrating schools, albeit hedged with limitations and the reservation of "deliberate speed." The Supreme Court decision to allow school integration was a reflection of a growing movement for black civil rights, for the right to vote and for integration. Black men fought on the front lines in World War II, a war proclaimed to make the world "safe for democracy." Black women migrated to the cities to toil in defense plants. When the soldiers returned, they were determined to have a better life. The end of the war ushered in the beginning of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the preparation for new imperialist wars to "roll back Communism" everywhere on the planet. Most black people were concerned about the "cotton curtain," the iron grip of the racist Southern police state here at home, and were less likely to buy into or embrace the American bourgeoisie's propaganda about an "Iron Curtain" Soviet threat.

The response of the racist Southern Democrats (the Dixiecrats) to the Brown ruling was one of organized terror and defiance from the highest-ranking officials on down. Francis M. Wilhoit described the role of the Democratic Party in The Politics of Massive Resistance:

"For it was, after all, the region's political parties—particularly the dominant Democrats—that bore the chief responsibility for politicizing the segregationist masses and getting them to the polls on election day to vote for anti-integration candidates. Furthermore, since membership in Southern parties overlapped with membership in the Klan, the Councils, and other resistance groups, it appeared for a time that the segregationists would get a stranglehold on policy making in the racial area, and prevent even tokenism."

White Citizens' Councils, the suit-and-tie incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, formed to terrorize blacks through vigilante violence and uphold Jim Crow segregation, flourished throughout Mississippi. These councils, claiming a membership of 60,000, were headquartered in the very county that Emmett was preparing to visit. In May that year in Belzoni, Mississippi, Reverend George Lee, local NAACP organizer, was shot to death from a passing car. Just days prior to Till's arrival, WW II veteran Lamar Smith was gunned down in broad daylight on a crowded courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Mississippi for urging black people to vote. This was the murderous atmosphere that a lively, self-confident teenager from the North journeyed into that fateful August.

On August 24, after picking cotton all morning, Emmett, his cousins and some friends drove into Money, Mississippi to purchase some candy and sodas at the local grocery store that serviced the black population. The white owner, Roy Bryant, was out of town and his young wife, Carolyn, was tending the store. There are conflicting stories of what happened at the store. Did he whistle? Was he trying to control his stutter? Did he speak up? The only thing that happened that day at the store for sure is that Emmett Till was seen as having "stepped out of line," ignoring "the customs of the South" in the presence of a white woman where this was punishable by death. On August 28, Roy Bryant and his half brother, J. W. Milam, came looking for Emmett at his relatives' home, kidnapping him in the dead of night. Three days later the hideously battered corpse of Emmett Till was found in the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. Mose Wright, Emmett's great uncle, was able to identify his body only by a ring belonging to his father that the child wore on his finger.

For the vast majority of unnamed lynch mob victims that have filled American history, the story would end here and would have also for Emmett Till if not for the courage and determination of his mother and family. Mamie Till-Mobley immediately alerted the press upon hearing that her son was missing. She fought to have her son's body returned to Chicago after the local sheriff hastily tried to bury the evidence—literally. She defied the Mississippi authorities by opening the padlocked and sealed casket. Most courageously, she insisted that the casket be displayed openly for the world to see, and ensured that graphic photos circulated internationally. An estimated 100,000-250,000 people waited in line for hours at Chicago's Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ to view the open casket. So shocking was Emmett's horrifically mutilated body that an estimated one out of every five individuals needed assistance out of the building. Emmett's death was transformed from "just another lynching" into an internationally known scandal. Although there had been thousands of Southern black men, women and children that met such horrible deaths, this was one that would spark a generation into action.

Mamie Till-Mobley set the tone by immediately demanding an investigation and publicizing the case. Although President Eisenhower and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover stonewalled her requests for an investigation, she persisted in bringing national attention to her son's lynching. Till-Mobley, her father and her cousin Rayfield Mooty, an Inland Steel worker, traveled to Sumner, Mississippi for the trial of Emmett's murderers and braved a gauntlet of white racists each morning as they entered the courthouse. Her uncle, Mose Wright, who had pleaded with Bryant and Milam not to take his nephew, did what virtually no black man in Mississippi had dared to do for nearly a century. He stood up in court and identified the two white men as the kidnappers. According to Wright's son, Simeon, who was in the same bed when Emmett was dragged away, Mose Wright was determined to testify. Knowing full well that he was risking the same fate as Emmett, he told his family that he didn't know if he would live or die, but he knew for sure that he was going to testify. Before Wright testified, the rest of his family had to be spirited away to Chicago. He joined them immediately following his testimony. Similarly an 18-year-old field hand, Willie Reed, came forward as a surprise witness for the prosecution to testify that he had heard Emmett's screams coming from Milam's barn. As soon as Reed stepped off the stand, he went directly to the train station and left for Chicago, rightly fearing for his life. He suffered a nervous breakdown upon arriving in Illinois. It took a tremendous amount of courage for these black witnesses to stand up to white racists in Mississippi, knowing they might not live to see another day, knowing that the only way to save themselves from the lynch rope was to leave everything behind and escape North. Their actions were not unlike slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad nearly one hundred years earlier.

At this time, Medgar Evers, a Mississippi NAACP organizer, gained national attention. Evers understood that the only way a case would be built against Bryant and Milam was if he took it into his own hands and mobilized his forces. The NAACP recruited volunteers to dress as sharecroppers and sent them out to gather information. These brave individuals knew full well what lay in store for them should they be detected. Civil rights lawyer Conrad Lynn worked on the case and identified others involved in the killing, but they were never prosecuted. Dr. T. R. M. Howard, leader of the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, helped organize and contributed to pay the costs of the investigation and relocation of the witnesses. He also was eventually forced to flee North. He made speaking tours of the country to expose the reign of terror in Mississippi. For the smallest shred of hope that justice might be served, these people put their lives on the line.

But that smallest shred was really no shred at all in the mid '50s in the Mississippi Delta. The ensuing murder trial of Bryant and Milam was exactly what one would expect. All five lawyers in the county joined the defense team so that none could be appointed special prosecutor in the case. Neither of the defendants denied kidnapping Emmett. The jury came back with a verdict of not guilty in just over an hour. It took them "that long" because they stopped to get a soda, hoping to stretch the time for appearance's sake. The jury came up with the lie that the bloated, rotting body that was dragged out of the Tallahatchie River might not be Emmett at all, but a body planted by his mother and the NAACP. Emmett was supposedly alive and well in Detroit, according to the Southern racists. A grand jury would not even indict them on kidnapping charges. Then, just months after the acquittal, Look magazine published a confession by Bryant and Milam boasting of their lynching of Till.

A campaign orchestrated by plantation owner, arch-segregationist Mississippi Senator, James O. Eastland, tried to smear Emmett Till and his dead father Louis as rapists. The U.S. army had executed Louis Till in 1945. While serving in Italy, he was charged with raping two white women and killing another, charges that many who served with him stated were lies. The same man, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as a general signed the execution order of the elder Till, sat as U.S. president and refused to investigate the lynching of the son. When Eastland managed to secure the army death records of Louis Till—the same records that Mamie Till-Mobley had been denied—and leaked them to the press, the NAACP took a step back from the case, concerned to maintain their image of "respectability."

Louis Till was not the only man to be executed or "disappear" under such dubious circumstances during World War II. In her autobiography, Mamie Till-Mobley spoke to the chilling stories she heard from other black soldiers and friends of Louis Till of the "problem that followed them overseas from the United States." She described 3 a.m. line-ups of black soldiers by racist white officers and Military Police. A woman would be brought in to identify one of the soldiers and the "black soldiers who got pointed out at three in the morning were always taken away. They were not brought back." As Mamie Till-Mobley astutely pointed out,

"It seemed that the army really didn't need much more proof than a late-night identification to take black soldiers out. But based on what Louis's friends told me, it seemed the real offense wasn't always against white women. Often, it was really against white men. A number of women in those late-night lineups, it seems, were only identifying the men who slept with them, not men they were accusing of rape.... But for many of the white officers and soldiers from the South, there also was a custom about that sort of thing.... Louis died before he could see what would happen to his son. Bo [Emmett's nickname] died before he could learn about what had happened to his father. Yet they were connected in ways that ran as deep as their heritage, as long as their bloodline.... Maybe Emmett did wind up like his father, an echo of what had happened ten years earlier. Maybe they were both lynched."

Lynching—"As American as Baseball and Church Suppers"

In 1924, a young Communist from Indochina named Nguyen Ai Quoc—later known as Ho Chi Minh—wrote:

"It is well known that the Black race is the most oppressed and the most exploited of the human family. It is well known that the spread of capitalism and the discovery of the New World had as an immediate result the rebirth of slavery, which was for centuries a scourge of the Negroes and a bitter disgrace for mankind. What everyone does not perhaps know is that after sixty-five years of so-called emancipation, American Negroes still endure atrocious moral and material sufferings, of which the most cruel and horrible is the custom of lynching."

The story of Emmett Till lays bare the harsh reality of black life in a country built on human bondage. The fight for genuine black equality remains an unfinished task of the American Civil War. The 200,000 ex-slaves and Northern blacks who fought in that war helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the Union Army, but the victorious Northern capitalists betrayed the promise of equality. Radical Reconstruction was the most democratic period in U.S. history. But the Northern capitalists looked at the devastated South and saw opportunity—not for building radical democracy, but for profitably exploiting Southern resources and the freedmen. With the "Compromise of 1877," the last of the Northern troops were pulled from the South and Reconstruction came to an end. Freed blacks were disenfranchised, politically expropriated and kept segregated at the bottom of society. The institution of Jim Crow segregation began to take shape, marked by strict racial codes, returning the black population to a position of complete subservience, enforced by violence. How or when to address whites, where to live, eat, sit, shop, wash your hands, or take a drink of water were all strictly regulated and backed up through a system of race terror—the omnipresent threat of the lynch rope.

In the period following Reconstruction, in the late 19th century, lynching reached its height. Lynching is rightfully equated with the summary torture and execution of black people. But this was not always the case. The term "lynch law" is believed to have come from Judge Charles Lynch, a patriot in the American Revolutionary War. Upon discovery of a Tory conspiracy in 1780, Lynch was said to have presided over an extralegal court that meted out summary punishment to the pro-British Loyalists. Such methods were given free rein in a burgeoning young country with a vast frontier and a roughly established legal system. The evolution of lynching into an act of race terror is organically linked to the history of black chattel slavery. Lynching became a form of sadistic black subjugation in reaction to the rise of the anti-slavery abolition movement, developing into a widespread social phenomenon in the wake of the defeat of Reconstruction. By the end of the 19th century, "lynch law" had a specific meaning. At its height in the 1880s and 1890s, as many as two to three black people were lynched per week. Sociologist John Dollard wrote in 1937: "Every Negro in the South knows that he is under a kind of sentence of death; he does not know when his turn will come, it may never come, but it may also be any time."

American historian Leon F. Litwack has found that of the thousands of recorded lynchings, about 640 involved "accusations of a sexual nature"—the most notorious and hysteria-inducing accusation. The targets of the race terrorists were often those who owned competitive businesses and farms, the man who managed to acquire some property and was deemed by the racists to not have enough humility, the man who challenged the system, the man who was educated and/or prosperous. W. E. B. Dubois put it this way: "There was one thing that the white South feared more than Negro dishonesty, ignorance and incompetency, and that was Negro honesty, knowledge, and efficiency" (Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow [1998]).

In many cases, lynchings were not spontaneous mob violence but planned and advertised events bringing trainloads of spectators from near and far. These were ordinary, "church-going, upstanding" citizens, drawn together in a grotesque racist ritual. The "pillars of the community" were often directly involved or had prior knowledge, and they always approved afterward. "Lynching was an undeniable part of daily life, as distinctly American as baseball and church suppers. Men brought their wives and children along to the events, posed for commemorative photographs, and purchased souvenirs of the occasion as if they had been at a company picnic" (Philip Dray, At The Hands of Persons Unknown [2002]). Celebratory postcards of mutilated and charred bodies were sent through the U.S. mail to friends and relatives. James Baldwin noted on seeing the red clay hills of Georgia for the first time, "I could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees."

The Civil Rights Movement

As Mamie Till-Mobley remarked in a TV documentary, "When people saw what had happened to my son, men stood up who had never stood up before. People became vocal who had never vocalized before. Emmett's death was the opening of the civil rights movement." Ten thousand people rallied in Harlem the Sunday following the acquittal. Thousands packed meeting halls and overflowed into the streets to hear Mamie speak around the country. Labor rallies and demonstrations were held to protest the lynching of Emmett Till and race-terror in Mississippi. The CIO Steelworkers Union to which Till's grandfather belonged wired the Mississippi governor demanding justice.

In the convulsive years that followed, social protest exploded into the civil rights movement. Eventually, Jim Crow, the poll taxes and sham rules that prevented black people from voting were abolished, and segregated schools and other public facilities were formally opened up. However, the civil rights movement was stopped cold when it came North and confronted the hardened economic foundations of black oppression, rooted in American capitalism. The heroic struggles of many thousands of black and white activists were betrayed by the liberal perspective of the leadership of the civil rights movement. Much as the organizers of the demonstrations against Till's murder appealed to Eisenhower, the strategy of the liberal-led civil rights movement was based on appeals to a section of the American bourgeoisie to right the historic wrongs done against black people, as though black freedom could be attained under the capitalist system.

There were important exceptions to this, exemplified by militant black leaders such as Robert F. Williams, the head of the NAACP branch in Monroe, North Carolina, which heavily recruited from the black working class of the area. Williams, who was denounced by liberal civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, put forward a program of armed self-defense to fight race-terror as opposed to reliance on the capitalist state and its politicians. This earned him the enmity of the liberal NAACP, which disowned him, as the FBI hounded him out of the country. Williams found refuge in Cuba in 1961 and then China, before returning to the U.S. in 1969. In 1965, the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense and Justice organized patrols to protect blacks and civil rights workers. At about the same time, in Gulfport, Mississippi, the black longshoremen's union threatened to close the port down if civil rights activists were injured or arrested.

But despite determined struggle to fulfill the unfinished promise of the Civil War—the promise of black freedom—the civil rights movement could only go so far. The Democratic Party co-opted many of the black leaders into their ranks. They and their political heirs today sit on Capitol Hill, in the statehouses and city halls, administering this system which is based on racial injustice and class oppression, while posing as defenders of black and working people.

For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

The lynching of Emmett Till was not an aberration. Such inhuman acts of violence were part of the fabric of the American Jim Crow South—a system that could only be enforced through violence. Nor did the smashing of Jim Crow mark the end of racial oppression in the U.S., in the North or the South. The laws enforcing segregation may be abolished, but segregation and inequality remain as facts. The death penalty represents the lynch rope as the ultimate form of institutionalized state terror, backed in the streets by racist cops who carry out their own summary executions. The continued oppression of black people some 40 years after the inauguration of formal, legal equality demonstrates that black oppression is an intrinsic component of the capitalist order in the U.S.

The capitalist rulers promote the poison of racism to keep the working class divided—to pit white workers against black workers—in order to more easily maintain their rule. But black people are not simply victims. Black workers represent a large component of the organized labor movement. The way forward lies in multiracial class struggle. A key obstacle to this perspective is the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy, which ties the working class to its exploiters, particularly by promoting illusions in the Democratic Party as a "friend" of labor and blacks.

The road to black freedom lies in the struggle to shatter this racist capitalist system through proletarian socialist revolution, and the power to do that lies with the working class. But this power cannot and will not be realized unless a class-struggle labor movement actively champions the cause of black liberation. The key to unlocking the chains that shackle labor to its exploiters is the political struggle to build a revolutionary internationalist leadership of the working class.

At the time of the Civil War, Karl Marx, the founder of modern communism, captured a fundamental truth of American society in his statement that "labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded." The Spartacist League fights to build a multiracial revolutionary workers party that will wrest the tremendous productive resources of this country out of the hands of the capitalist owners and put these resources into the hands of the working class, those who produce the wealth of this society. Only then will racial oppression be a thing of the past. Finish the Civil War! For black liberation through socialist revolution!

Workers Vanguard No. 852

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