Commentary: Probing the Comparison – Trayvon Martin/Mass Incarceration and Emmett Till/Segregation

Protests are blooming this spring. Black Americans are enraged and emboldened, shouting entreaties for justice, justice, justice.

Stoking even more rage—or rather placing the rage in historical context—has been the continuous comparisons made between the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, murdered recently by a neighborhood watchman of a majority White gated community in Florida who is claiming self-defense, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago native murdered by Mississippi segregationists in 1955 for speaking “inappropriately” to a White woman.

A blog in The New Yorker on the Martin tragedy was entitled “Emmett Till in Sanford.” Hundreds of protesters gathered at a park in Sanford, Fla., on March 22, and dozens of them sported t-shirts with Martin’s photo next to a Till photo. These Martin-Till shirts have become widely popular among activists around the nation.

Syracuse professor Boyce Watkins wrote that Martin “has become a modern day Emmett Till.” University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill insightfully compared Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, to Mamie Mae Till, who courageously allowed an open casket funeral and circulated pictures of her son’s tattered face around the world. Mamie Till’s public fight to get justice for her son is one of the untold sparks of the Civil Rights Movement.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson dismissed the “facile comparison” as “a disservice to history—and the memory of both young men. It is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.”

Robinson is correct and incorrect. The link is a service and disserve to history. The widely touted comparison of Martin to Till is profound and “facile.” 

The accuracy of the comparison is grounded in its context, and, more important, what the deaths of these young Black male teens symbolized, what they displayed, and what they demonstrated about America.

Till’s death symbolized one of the most biting effects of American racism in 1955. It vividly displayed and demonstrated the being of Jim Crow, of southern de jure segregation, of violent Black subjectivity for the entire world to see. No African-American was the same after seeing Till’s bludgeoned face.

Similarly, Martin’s death symbolizes one of the most biting effects of American racism in 2012. It vividly displays and demonstrates the being of what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow: of mass incarceration; of the mass criminalization of Black men; of one out of three Black males either in jail, on probation, or on parole; of states spending more on prison than higher education; of the prison-industrial complex; of violent Black subjectivity for the entire world to see.

Last fall, as I walked into a CVS near my home in Philadelphia to get some toothpaste, a White police officer approached me with his hand on his gun and ordered me to get my hands out of my pockets. The police were looking for someone in the area who reportedly had a gun, and I, like thousands of other brothers in the area, fit the description: black male and black sweatshirt. If I had made the wrong movement or if the officer had continued his erroneous judgment, then I would be Trayvon Martin.

After he walked me outside to pat me down over the hood of his car (by then several other cop cars had arrived), he ordered me to sit in his car while they supposedly made sure I was not the shooter. As I sat there, I lectured the officer on mass incarceration—the most critical civil and human rights issue of our day.

In 1955, African-Americans were angry about Emmett Till. But they were more angry about what he represented—the latest victim of Jim Crow segregation. In 2012, African-Americans are angry about Trayvon Martin. But, are they even more angry about what he represents—the latest victim of mass incarceration or the mass criminalization of Black masculinity?

Anger about Martin in isolation of anger about mass incarceration is fruitless. Comparing Martin to Till without speaking about what systems of racism produced their deaths is fruitless.

The anger over Till’s death sparked the Civil Rights Movement. Will the anger over Martin’s death spark the New Abolitionist Movement against mass incarceration? Will Sybrina Fulton’s crusade to retrieve justice for her son explode into a larger systemic struggle against the mass criminalization of Black males? 

Emmett Till and de jure segregation in 1955 is Trayvon Martin and mass incarceration in 2012. They saw the connections between the tragedy and the racist system then. Do we see it now?

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).