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An American Mourning: A Remembrance of Emmett Till, Rodney King And Trayvon Martin



“They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body, but not my obedience.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Mississippi 1955. If you know the name of Emmett Till, murdered fifty-seven years ago on this day, August 28th, then you know that his death was a crucial turning point for the Civil Rights movement in America.  What you may not know is that Emmett was a breech baby, that he was talented at art and science, and was a very good speller. At six years of age, he contracted polio, and was left with a stutter. His nickname was “Bobo” and he loved to play pranks on his friends. His mother would often recall his beautiful teeth. On his trip to Money, Mississippi to visit family in the South, she finally gave him his father’s ring to wear. Perhaps she saw, as he boarded the train, handsome in his suit and hat, that her fourteen-year-old son was now becoming a man.

Facts like this may not matter to those interested in Emmett Till the historical icon, but when people become icons, the smaller details, the ones that keep his memory alive, obviously don’t make newspaper headlines.  An icon belongs to the public, and to history books, preserved in the amber of memory.  In The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, his mother Mamie Till Mobley remembered that they almost missed the train, that they could hear the whistle blowing. As Emmett ran up the steps, she said to him, “Wait a minute. You didn’t kiss me goodbye, where are you going? How do you know I’ll ever see you again?” and he said, “Aw, Mama” and gave his mother a kiss.  He also gave her his watch for safekeeping because he wouldn’t be needing it, and she wore it home.  This is what a mother remembers.

Till, like many black children from the North visiting Southern relatives for the first time, was warned about the white people and Southern life in 1955. Mobley was right to be concerned about Emmett.  As his friends described him, Emmett liked mischief and was sometimes fearless; one friend later described him as having no sense of danger.  For a black boy who grew up in Chicago, who bragged to his cousins of having white friends in his class, and even a white girlfriend, Money, Mississippi might as well have been Mars.

The kind of racism Emmett would face wasn’t something that could be combated with a rulebook.  The particular lessons of Southern racism were learned in blood, passed down through generations. While Northern cities had their own forms of discrimination and brutality, Mississippi had to have been a psychological time warp for a boy like Emmett, a place where blacks lived under constant mental and physical terror, no matter how deceptively pretty the landscape.  Emmett hadn’t grown up in a world where whites were Ma’am and Sir, where a perceived sign of disrespect, eye contact, for example, or the slightest hesitation when a white man or woman gave an order, could lead to lethal repercussions – the loved one being taken in the middle of the night and “disappeared,” to be found later hanging from a tree.   The relationship between Southern whites and blacks was an intricate and complicated routine: grotesque,  but with subtle inflections and nuances.  Like a held breath, peace depended on blacks’ knowing their place at every moment; explosive violence, the subtext to all black and white interactions, could be released at any time. How could Emmett at fourteen really understand a system where blacks had no protection under the law, were intimidated to discourage them from voting or demanding fair wages, where it was inconceivable that a black man would testify against a white man in court?  Arriving in this unfamiliar apartheid, he might as well have been on a ship to South Africa.

The rest of the story is legend; on August 24, Emmett went to a store with his cousins in Money, Mississippi to buy candy.  It is disputed what happened in the store; some say that Till whistled at the white woman who owned the store with her husband, others maintain the whistle was part of Emmet’s speech impediment. Other accounts say that his indiscretion was that his hand touched hers when he gave her the money. Whatever it was, in her mind she had been violated, so she went out to her car and got her gun. The boys left the store, and Emmett, frightened at first by the reaction around him, eventually put it behind him.  Four days later, Till would be found in a bayou, tied with barbed wire to a seventy-pound cotton gin, bloated by the water and mutilated beyond recognition, one eye torn out and one missing, his skull split in half, and a bullet-hole through his head.

Ray Bryant, his half-brother, J.W. Milam, and another man who some sources say was black, came in the middle of the night and took Till from his bed in front of his family; they threatened to kill his great-uncle Mose Wright if he reported what he had seen. Everyone assumed that they would abuse Till as a punishment, but being a child, they would eventually bring him back.  Soon after Till’s body was found, Milam and Bryant, were tried and acquitted for the murder. A grand jury refused even to indict them of kidnapping. Protected under the laws of double jeopardy, and thus unable to be tried again for the crime, they later admitted to Look magazine that they had committed the murder.

Despite the brutality of the crime, there were many whites and even some blacks that felt Emmett got what he deserved, that he was “showing out” and should have known better.  It is easy to fall into this trap, needing Emmett to be a perfect boy, an angel, in order for him to be a victim.  If Emmett was disrespectful to an adult, then he deserved to be talked to by his family — he didn’t deserve to pay with his life. Mamie said in interviews that she raised her son to be a gentleman, and the story of Emmett as a cussing, disrespectful hoodlum wasn’t true.  Recalling the case, I think about Trayvon Martin, lying dead in a morgue, as controversy surrounds what he was wearing the night he was killed, what he bought at the store, what he was doing in that neighborhood in the first place.  When Bryant showed the body of Emmett Till soon after his murder to a local black man, the man was quoted as saying, “That’s what smart niggers get.”

Smart niggers make certain white people nervous in America. Sometimes they can’t be controlled; they may even run for president, and win. Emmett was supposed to be an example, as lynchings always were, to other boys his age who may have been impressed by their cousin from Chicago: this is what happens when you forget who you are. Know your place, and if you can’t remember, the Ku Klux Klan will be happy to remind you. As I reflect on Emmett, I remember South Carolina representative Joe Wilson shouting, “You lie!” at the President’s speech on health care, and the reporter Neil Munro heckling the President during a press conference about homeland security. Obama handles these moments with grace, but I feel outrage for him, because this isn’t an issue of politics, but of white supremacy.  Obama is proud and unyielding. These men apologized for their behavior, but the damage was done and they knew it.  What is most appalling is that they are willing to disrespect the highest office in our country, a national security issue, because they can’t resist disrespecting a black man.  And now Trayvon Martin is dead because someone who felt the same entitlement couldn’t get his hands on Obama, who acknowledged after Martin’s murder that Trayvon could have been his son.  The neighborhood that Zimmerman was “watching” was America, and Martin, in Zimmerman’s view, didn’t belong, didn’t respect his authority, didn’t know his place.

Mississippi 1991.   Rodney King is beaten by seven police officers after a car chase.  While the incident took place in Los Angeles, the ruthlessness of the officers and the crime against him recall the Mississippi Emmett faced thirty-six years before. And like the corpse of Emmett Till, revealed for all the world to see, the assault on Rodney King was videotaped by George Holliday, a man watching from the balcony of his apartment. King, like Till, was also violated a second time, by the legal system.  Three of the police officers in that trial were acquitted, and a jury was unable to agree on a verdict for the fourth. While the federal government later pursued the case, King was denied real justice, and riots ensued in L.A. after the verdict was read. Rodney King is dead, and his death by accidental drowning, as we await the trail of George Zimmerman, feels like the premonition of a greater tragedy that awaits us.  I am frightened about the Zimmerman trial; this country cannot stand another unjust verdict.

Mississipi 2012.  George Zimmerman shoots Trayvon Martin as part of his “neighborhood watch” in Sanford, Florida; he claims that when he approached Martin and questioned him, Martin tried to attack him, and that he ended up using his gun in self-defense.  The words he puts in Martin’s mouth to justify his actions towards the victim are reminiscent of Bryant and Milam’s claims that as they were beating Till, he was shouting back at them, calling them bastards, telling them that he was their equal, and that he had white girlfriends.  As Zimmerman has already lied to the public, it is hard to know what to believe.

In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Zimmerman says that he has no regrets about getting out of the car the evening of Martin’s death, against the advice of the police. He then says the shooting of Trayvon Martin was the “will of God.” To some, Trayvon should never have been in the neighorhood in the first place. It is Zimmerman who is the real victim, a folk hero. A judge revoked Zimmerman’s bail because he and his wife lied about how much money they had at the time of the bail hearing, not admitting to the $135,000 they had collected in donations on their website.   Zimmerman’s lying didn’t surprise me, but the money he raised did. In the documentary Emmett Till: The Untold Story, Dan Wakefield of the The Nation recalls:

“There were little jars for people to drop money in, in stores, in the drugstore, dry cleaners and commercial places in the town of Sumner for the defense of the two men accused of (Till’s) murder, and I must say it was a strange, eerie feeling, a very uncomfortable feeling, to see these little jars of money being collected to defend two men who it seemed (everyone) understood were the murderers.”

The crimes against Emmett will remain an ultimate horror story in our collective conscience because of a mother’s courageous choice. We thank you, Mamie Till -Mobley. When the sheriff tried to rush to bury your son’s remains – knowing that if anybody saw the ripped-up mask that was once your baby’s face there would be global outrage – you had the burial stopped (literally as he was being lowered into the ground) and his body sent to you in Chicago.  Then you were told by the funeral director that legally he wasn’t able to open the casket.  And you said, “Do you have a hammer?” When he replied yes, you told him, “If you can’t open the box, I can. And I’m going in that box.” In the end, he opened it for you and you stood there and saw what could have been your private horror. But you told them you wanted an open casket for the funeral, and when they offered to prepare the body, you said, “No, let the people see what I’ve seen.” And you stood up for your son, again and again, and for the promise of justice in our country which was never fulfilled for you or your child. You believed all men are created equal, when you walked into that courtroom, the long walk that ended in the acquittal of the men who murdered your beautiful boy who was a breech birth, who was good at art and science, who was a good speller, and who wore his daddy’s ring. And you made that walk again into the courtroom, even after the death threats, the mail that said you’d never leave the courtroom alive, you stood up for your son.

Emmett, your death was not in vain. Because of what happened to you, the world stopped on its axis for a moment, and black and white people in America and all over the world mourned and shared a mother’s grief.  And whether what happened in the store that day was a misunderstanding, or a prank, or teenage insouciance, it was an act of resistance.  I believe you were fiercely independent, theatrical and bold, and that those men saw something in you that refused to cast your eyes down, to bow.  Your act of resistance, like Rosa Parks’, was heroic, and so they smashed you, gouging your eyes from their sockets, because you dared look into theirs.

The day will soon come when we will be glued to our televisions, watching the trial of George Zimmerman, who might not be in jail at all if it had been up to some members of law enforcement in his state.  Trayvon Martin’s parents, like your mother, have been accused of fueling racial tensions, of making a big deal over nothing, as they fight for his memory and defend the innocence of their son. When the trial ends, will then see if anyone really mourns your death, Emmett, if we have truly learned from our past. I have a sneaking suspicion we haven’t learned a goddamn thing. I fear for our country if this man is acquitted.  And yet cynicism is an insult to your memory, and the memory of your mother, and so we wait for justice to be served.

Anticipating fresh heartbreak, somehow we get up and face another day. Mahalia sings: Sometimes I wonder how I got over.  There is a story in the morning paper: Two-year-old shot in gang crossfire, on the evening news, a young athlete shot down trying to defend her younger brother, mourned by her girlfriend.  We know that somewhere in this country, another black mother will bury her son or daughter today, a mother will make that long walk to her child’s casket.  Emmett Till lives and dies every day in this country, in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Philadelphia.  And whether the finger that pulls the trigger is black or belongs to the State, another black body is destroyed, American potential is destroyed. We grieve collectively for a day or two, but we have a very short memory in this country. Ask George Zimmerman’s accountant.


Max Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996) and Mixed Messages: An Anthology of Literature to Benefit Hospice and Cancer Causes. His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.

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‘Biggest Felony in American History’: Prosecutor’s Closing Argument Against Trump Praised



A prosecutor in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s state prosecution of Donald Trump is being praised for his closing argument Tuesday by a top legal scholar who says the ex-president’s crime was “arguably the biggest felony in American history.”

Trump is on trial in lower Manhattan, facing 34 felony counts. Lawfare’s Anna Bower had summed up the case earlier on Tuesday: “Prosecutors allege that Trump falsified business records in order to commit or cover-up a conspiracy to promote his election to the Presidency by ‘unlawful means.'”

Harvard University Professor Emeritus Laurence Tribe, a professor of law and top constitutional scholar who wrote a major textbook on the U.S. Constitution, quoted New York prosecutor Josh Steinglass, calling his closing argument “devastating.”

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“This scheme could very well be what got President Trump elected,” Steinglass told the jury.

Professor Tribe then remarked: “Think this was a minor crime? Think again! It was arguably the biggest felony in American history. Certainly the most harmful.”

MSNBC legal contributor Katie Phang offered some background.

Referring to AMI, then the parent company of the National Enquirer, she writes:

“STEINGLASS: Once AMI purchased stories on a candidate’s behalf and in coordination with the campaign, those purchases became unlawful campaign contributions. I suggest to you that the value of this corrupt bargain at the Trump Tower meeting cannot be overstated. It turned out to be one of the most valuable contributions ever made…. ‘This scheme, cooked up by these men…could very well be what got President Trump elected…'”

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‘Wildly Lawless’: Judge Cannon’s Removal Predicted by Top Legal Scholar



U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon will be removed from overseeing the trial in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s Espionage Act case against Donald Trump, predicts a top constitutional scholar who is calling her rejection of an urgent request from federal prosecutors to place additional restrictions on the ex-president “wildly lawless,” and a “smoking gun.”

Last week Donald Trump, his campaign, and almost immediately his supporters, falsely claimed President Joe Biden had tried to assassinate the ex-president in 2022 when FBI agents executed a legal and lawful search warrant on Mar-a-Lago. Trump had been storing well over 1000 White House items he had taken, including hundreds of classified documents, at his Florida residence and resort. Among those were some of the nation’s top nuclear secrets.

In a fundraising email one week ago Trump’s campaign claimed, “Joe Biden was locked & loaded ready to take me out & put my family in danger.” Trump was out of state when the FBI entered Mar-a-Lago. Federal agents had conferred with Secret Service, and had planned for the search warrant to be executed when the ex-president was not at the club.

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“Cannon’s wildly lawless rejection of Special Counsel Smith’s clearly correct request for a gag order against fake and dangerous claims that the FBI was ordered to assassinate him is good news,” declared University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, Laurence Tribe, a professor of law and top constitutional scholar who wrote a major textbook on the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s the smoking gun that will finally lead to her removal from the stolen secrets case,” Professor Tribe added.

Not responding to the substance of the Special Counsel’s request to order the ex-president to not make any statements that could be dangerous to law enforcement, Judge Cannon instead rejected the motion on the grounds Smith’s attorneys should have conferred with Trump’s attorneys before making the request, as ABC News reports.

“The Government moves to modify defendant Donald J. Trump’s conditions of release, to make clear that he may not make statements that pose a significant, imminent, and foreseeable danger to law enforcement agents participating in the investigation and prosecution of this case,” federal prosecutors wrote in the filing that Judge Cannon rejected.

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While the Special Counsel’s prosecutors did confer with Trump’s attorney, Judge Cannon claimed their efforts were “wholly lacking in substance and professional courtesy,” according to ABC News. “Trump’s lawyers argued that the special counsel violated Local Rule 88.9, which says both parties must ‘meet and confer’ before flings motions so the court and the parties’ time is used efficiently. In a filing Monday, Trump’s lawyers asked Cannon to strike the special counsel’s request and impose sanctions on any prosecutors involved in filing their motion.”

Trump’s attorney had wanted to delay any meeting to confer over the issue until Monday, but federal prosecutors, concerned about Trump’s recent remarks, said they could not wait.

“As we also tried to explain earlier, our judgment was that the situation your client has created necessitated a prompt request for relief that could not wait the weekend to file,” Special Counsel prosecutor David Harbach told Trump’s lawyers via email, according to ABC News. “We understand your position and represented to the court that you do not believe the government has engaged in adequate conferral here.”

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‘The State is Not God’: DeSantis Paid Educators to Teach ‘Christian Nationalism’ Report Says



Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis last year recruited thousands of public school teachers and paid them thousands of dollars out of taxpayer funds to attend training on teaching what he called “civics,” but a report states the program focused on “the tenets of Christian nationalism,” and included at least one quote from the Christian bible.

“Training materials produced by the Florida Department of Education direct middle and high school teachers to indoctrinate students in the tenets of Christian nationalism, a right-wing effort to merge Christian and American identities,” Popular Information founder Judd Legum revealed in his exclusive report Tuesday.

“A three-day training course on civic education, conducted throughout Florida in the summer of 2023, included a presentation on the ‘Influences of the Judeo-Christian Tradition’ on the founding of the United States,” Legum writes. “According to speaker notes accompanying one slide, teachers were told that ‘Christianity challenged the notion that religion should be subservient to the goals of the state,’ and the same hierarchy is reflected in America’s founding documents. That slide quotes the Bible to assert that ‘[c]ivil government must be respected, but the state is not God.’ Teachers were told the same principle is embedded in the Declaration of Independence.”

Legum included a screenshot from the training that bears the logos of the Florida Department of Education and DeSantis’ “Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative.”

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It reads in part: “‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’ Matthew 22:21.”

“The next slide in the deck,” Legum continues, “quotes an article by Peter Lillback, the president of Westminster Theological Seminary and the founder of The Providence Forum, an organization that promotes and defends Christian nationalism. The group’s executive director, Jerry Newcombe, writes a weekly column for World Net Daily— a far-right site known for publishing hundreds of stories falsely suggesting Obama was a Muslim born in Africa.”

That slide “argues that there would be no freedom, no republic, and no constitution without religion. The speaker notes accompanying the slide emphasize that ‘the separation of Church and State did not mean the separation of God and government,’ and all the founders were ‘steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition.'”

In a March of 2023 press release, DeSantis’s office trumpeted: “Today, Governor Ron DeSantis highlighted Florida’s continued commitment to expanding civics education in Florida schools and announced that the first 4,500 teachers have completed the Civics Seal of Excellence endorsement course and will receive a $3,000 bonus.”

The statement claimed the course was “at capacity with 20,000 teachers making their commitment to civics education, and there are additional 14,000 teachers on the waiting list for this first of a kind civics teacher professional development program.”

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It also pointed to a 2022 program, saying “Florida’s Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative also included a three-day Civics Excellence teacher training course in the summer of 2022 for teachers to increase their knowledge of civics in addition to the creation of supplemental materials for civics lessons including the Civics Reading List and the Portraits of Patriotism video series to further student interaction with civics.”

Some teachers called that 2022 program’s teachings “cherry-picked,” NBC News (video below) reported at the time. Others were “shocked to learn what they were expected to teach their students.”

“They told us what to think and what our opinions were,” one teacher told NBC News, calling it “very unsettling.”

One slide in that program NBC News reported claimed it is a “misconception” that “The Founders desired strict separation of church and state and the Founders only wanted to protect freedom of worship.”

In 2022 The Washington Post reported, “New civics training for Florida public school teachers comes with a dose of Christian dogma, some teachers say, and they worry that it also sanitizes history and promotes inaccuracies.”

Watch that NBC News video below or at this link.

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