By Shannon Roxborough
Though separated by several decades, two tragic events bonded by collective outrage and shifting social currents, spurred racial justice movements.
The first series of incidents happened in August 1955 when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago visiting family in the tiny Mississippi Delta hamlet of Money, Miss., walked into Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market to buy bubble gum. While inside, the woman working behind the counter, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the store owner’s wife, accused Till of grabbing her around the waist and making a crude, sexual remark, then wolf-whistling at her. (In 2007, Donham recanted part of her story, telling Timothy B. Tyson, a Duke University professor researching a book on the incident called “The Blood of Emmett Till,” that version of events was “not true” and that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”)
Three nights later, Roy Bryant, the owner of the store, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home and took him to a barn where he was brutally beaten, had an eye gouged out and was shot in the head. They then tied a 75-pound fan from a cotton gin to his neck with barbed wire and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River — after being acquitted of murder in less than one hour by an all-white jury, the pair later confessed to killing Till in a 1956 Look magazine article.
Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, widely publicized the case and insisted on a open-casket funeral to “let the people see what they did to my boy.”
The horrific savagery of the case and gruesome photo of Till’s disfigured body published in Jet magazine highlighted one of the most egregious examples of racial violence against African-Americans in the South.
The Till case brought global attention to the plight of black people in the southern United States, catalyzed the 20th century civil rights movement of the 1960s and left the South grappling with its dark past and leaving deep scars. (Since 2008, several historical markers on the site where Till’s body was pulled out of the river have been vandalized, removed and riddled with bullet holes, prompting the installation of a 500-pound bulletproof sign.)
Fast forward to May 25, 2020. George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, was being detained at an intersection in Minneapolis, Minn., in front of a corner store called Cup Foods, under suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on a handcuffed Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, causing him to die of a heart attack.
Floyd’s death was the latest in a years-long string of high-profile police killings of black Americans — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude and others. Within hours of Floyd’s killing, a crowd gathered at the location where he died to collectively grieve and express anger. That outpouring spread like wildfire, galvanizing the nation, prompting calls for an end to police brutality and systemic racism.
Protests quickly followed, with people in large cities and small towns across the country and around the world pouring onto the streets in a yearlong call for change, accountability and justice. The mass protest movement, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, had ultimately become a vehicle for political and social action.
The Twitter-friendly hashtag #BlackLivedMatter was adopted by activists and everyday people as a way to focus the national and global discussion on race, policing and the realities Black Americans face.
Meanwhile, racists, racism deniers and adversaries of change twisted the meaning of the phrase to imply that message is “only black lives matter,” instead of it’s obvious intended meaning that “black lives matter, too,” creating a hashtag of their own — #AllLivesMatter — and even staging anti-Black Lives Matter protests..
Critics also linked opportunistic instances of looting, vandalism, arson and violence to the overwhelmingly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests as a way to undermine the movement’s efforts to gain public support and achieve systemic reforms. Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign even used footage of unrest in political ads, implying that the issue for Americans was about law and order, not racial equity.
American hyperpartisan polarization reared its ugly head, as usual, with conservative media outlets and popular right-wing pundits seizing the moment to morph the narrative into Republicans standing for the rule of law and Democrats supporting lawlessness.
Even so, the racial justice movement — Civil Rights Movement 2.0 — caught fire, and was embraced by community leaders, celebrities, brands and concerned citizens nationwide and across the globe — demonstrations in more than a dozen nations cropped up to express solidarity Black Americans and to seek an end to racism and police brutality in their own countries.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, there has been some real progress.
Over the past year, calls for racial justice have touched virtually every aspect of American life on a scale unseen since the turbulence of the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.
The tide of change saw scores of Confederate statues, flags, symbols and names associated with white supremacy removed from public spaces or renamed. Corporations pledged billions of dollars to racial equity causes. Racist statements or acts made by everyone from average citizens to public officials have been met with no-tolerance action, costing them their jobs and sending their employers scrambling into disavow mode, while clarifying their anti-racism stances. The movement even inspired the push to “Stop Asian Hate,” which is aimed at hate crimes, violence and racial bias against Asian-Americans, as well as xenophobia targeting people of Asian descent.
Increasingly, police killings of black people captured on video are making national headlines, fueling demands for change and prompting officials to take a hard look at American policing. Politicians have pushed for police reform and greater oversight, introducing a number of state laws and local initiatives to increase accountability and overhaul rules on the use of force.
Policing policy shifts across dozens of states have included overhauling disciplinary systems, mandating or funding officer body cams, placing restrictions on or banning chokeholds, limited no-knock warrants, increasing civilian oversight, requiring transparency in misconduct cases and placing strict limits on police officer immunity (in March of this year, New York City even moved to make it easier for citizens to file lawsuits against police officers).
Most recently, Derek Chauvin, the white police officer put on trial for the death of George Floyd was convicted of murder and manslaughter.
“The fight is not over. We must remember what’s at stake! #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd means #PoliceReformNow!,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, wrote in a Twitter post.
The guilty verdict was viewed by some activists as bellwether on the national reckoning on race and policing, and what they hope is a sign of what’s to come: systemic change.
Others remain more cautiously optimistic about seeing sweeping, real-world changes.
One person adopting a wait-and-see approach while working to bring about change is Destiny Owens, founder and CEO of B.E.A.M. (Black Excellence Around Minnesota). A racial equity consultant, activist and advocate, she speaks frequently on race-related issues.
“Change is happening, but we still have a long way to go in this country,” said Owens, who works with a range of nonprofit and public organizations on issues of social justice, racial equality and police reform. “There are so many systems that have to be restructured for true justice to abound.”
Owens was with a friend around the corner and witnessed the large police response when Daunte Wright was fatally shot in April by Kim Potter, a police officer, in Brooklyn Center, Minn., who says she mistakenly drew and fired her service pistol instead of her Taser.
Owens calls the police brutality happening today modern-day lynching. She believes that racial profiling and bias in policing is a big part of the problem, and she works with local law enforcement officials on improving community policing and adopting anti-discrimination training and practices.
“We’re in a time where we want more than just justice. We want equal treatment,” she said.
Owens efforts to help make progress toward that equality have included everything from organizing a local protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death to counseling white parents on raising anti-racist children.
Ultimately, she believes that real, sustainable change can happen in time, with the a socially conscious mindset.
“When I think about what happen to Emmett Till, when I think about what happened in that elevator when Black Wall Street burned down and when I think about what’s happening now after George Floyd was killed, the only difference is the day and the time,” she said. “It’s not enough in this day and age to not be racist. You have to be anti-racist.”
Though we live in what could be the most politically divided country in the world, it is still a nation of hope and opportunity.
Perhaps the most hopeful result of the movement has been informing the ongoing national debate on social, racial and judicial justice, while acting as a rallying cry for meaningful — and perhaps lasting — change.
Said Owens, “Time will tell if we will achieve true justice in this country and be propelled into a new era for us to be better than we are.”
Shannon Roxborough has been a freelance writer and journalist for more than 30 years, with his writing, commentary and research published in GQ, Money, Barron’s and The New York Times, among many others.