▶ Watch Video: Charles M. Blow on Derek Chauvin trial: “This time … history would not be repeated”

The New York Times columnist compares the 1955 trial of Whites accused of lynching Black teenager Emmett Till, and the conviction of a former Minneapolis policeman for murdering George Floyd:

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has called the lynching of Emmett Till the “Big Bang” of the Civil Rights movement. Till was a 14-year-old Chicago boy who, in the summer of 1955, was kidnapped from his great-uncle’s house in Money, Miss., in the middle of the night. He was brutally beaten, forced to strip naked, shot in the face, and then tied with barbed wire to the fan of a cotton gin and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.

Tens of thousands of people filed past his casket to see what White terrorists had done to the child’s body. The image of his disfigured face was seared into the public consciousness.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus just a few months later, she said that she thought of Emmett Till.

The evidence against the men who murdered Till was overwhelming, but their trial for that killing was a mockery. As Jet Magazine reported at the time, the trial “had taken on the appearances of a Sunday school picnic.”

Roy Bryant (right), and his half-brother, J. W. Milam (second from right), walk down the steps of the Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood, Miss. after being freed on bond. The two, charged in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, were later acquitted by an all-White jury of murdering the Black 14-year-old.

AP file photo

The defendants were escorted to court every day by the county sheriff, who greeted the Black press by saying “Good morning” with a racial slur.

The defendants’ wives and children were allowed to sit with them during testimony. Spectators drank sodas and beer in the courtroom. 

After just four hours of jury deliberation, Till’s killers were found not guilty. Then, as Jet described, as the White spectators rose to leave, they turned a damning glance toward the handful of Negroes who sat at their press table: “It was their way of letting it be known that no White man in the state had been punished for the murder of a Negro in more than 65 years.”

Emmett Till’s legacy


I couldn’t help but to think of Till’s trial while watching the murder trial of Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd. You could reasonably argue that Floyd was lynched by Chauvin as he kneeled on his neck, pressing the life out of him. You can Floyd’s murder the “big bang” of 2020’s racial awakening. 

Like Till, the killing sparked massive outrage. Like Till, the image of the murder became cultural iconography. Like Till’s case, the evidence was overwhelming.

But the trials were completely different. Chauvin was found guilty on all counts and led out of the courtroom handcuffed.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is taken into custody after he was found guilty on all three counts in his trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis.

Court TV via AP, Pool

In Mississippi White supremacy had sneered, suggesting that it had been 65 years since a White man had been convicted of killing a Black one in the state. Over 65 years later, in Minnesota, Chauvin became the first White officer in the history of that state to be convicted of killing a Black person.

This time, in this moment – if only for this moment – history would not be repeated. Justice would not be mocked. 

With big bangs, universes of possibilities are born. With George Floyd’s murder, justice was among them.

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Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Lauren Barnello.