If we are to believe Cleveland police and city officials, 12-year-old Tamir Rice caused his own death. That is, his actions—holding a toy gun in a public park—led to his November 22 shooting death at the hands of a police officer.
And Emmett Till wolf-whistled at a young white woman in a Mississippi country store.
This is not a non sequitur, my friends. The similarities between the cases of Tamir Rice and Emmett Till shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice. The language of blame, the alacrity with which white men see black boys as threatening men, and the attempts to paint Rice’s family as criminals whose son was unworthy of defense: Someone somewhere in the cosmos must have pushed a replay button on scripts from 1955—the year of Till’s murder.
When attorneys for the City of Cleveland responded to a wrongful death suit filed by Rice’s family earlier this month, their documents alleged that the 12-year-old had failed to “exercise due care”—lawyer-speak for “it’s his fault, not ours”; Cleveland’s mayor has since issued an apology for the filing’s language, if not its substance. But days earlier, Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland police union, made his viewpoint starkly clear in an interview with Politico:
“Tamir Rice is in the wrong. … He’s menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body. Tamir looks to his left and sees a police car. He puts his gun in his waistband. Those people—99 percent of the time those people run away from us. We don’t want him running into the rec center. That could be a whole other set of really bad events. They’re trying to flush him into the field. Frank [the driver] is expecting the kid to run. The circumstances are so fluid and unique.”
To the contrary, these circumstances aren’t so “unique.”
Emmett Till was 14 years old when a white Mississippi woman accused him of getting “fresh” with her. Like Tamir Rice, he was described as stocky and big for his age at an estimated 5 feet 4 inches tall and perhaps 160 pounds. As his uncle, Moses “Preacher” Wright, later testified: "He looked like a man."
And Till’s white murderers—Roy Bryant, the husband of the young white woman, and his half-brother J.W. Milam—said that he boasted like one. And that would not be tolerated in a Jim Crow system that demanded racial deference or death. In the January 1956 Look magazine interview that’s infamous for its casual candor and banal evil, the men said that Emmett Till claimed he had “had” white women, that his grandmother was white, and told his tormenters that he was as just as good as they were. If they embroidered their tale of racism-justified homicide, Bryant and Milam couldn’t have manufactured a better version of the South’s favorite bogey-man: the “bad nigger” who bragged of interracial sex and resisted subordination.
Tamir Rice never spoke to the young officer who shot him, an officer with a documented history of emotional problems and poor performance. Only seconds went by between the time police disembarked from their cruiser and the moment Timothy Loehmann began firing.
Tamir Rice’s body and that pellet gun spoke for themselves. In the eyes of those who killed them, Emmett Till and Tamir Rice looked like men. And they looked like black men, whose bodies have long been code for sexual danger and crime in the white imagination.
But they were boys, bright-eyed boys with dreams. They were boys who were oblivious to how others perceived their bodies in one devastating, single moment. Emmett Till, the “Chicago boy” who retraced the Great Migration back to his mother’s native Mississippi during the summer of 1955, didn’t understand that Jim Crow punished even the slightest perceived infractions. Though Tamir Rice likely never realized it, as he was swept up in the games created by his own imagination, Tamir Rice was claiming the right to use public space, the right to play, and the right to childhood, rights that just don’t stick to black children as they adhere to white children.
Like Mamie Till, who chose to publish the pictures of her son’s mutilated face in Jet magazine, Samaria Rice chose to release the video of her son’s last seconds at play in a park.
But the comparisons don’t end there. It took only days after Tamir Rice’s death for the smear campaign to begin. On November 24, media reported that his father, Leonard Warner, had been charged with domestic violence and his mother, Samaria Rice, had faced drug trafficking charges in 2012.
The implications were clear. Rice was not a worthy or innocent victim because his parents did not fit the mold of long-suffering, courageous and respectable parents of murdered black children. That mold was exemplifed by Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley. But few remember the way in which the sins of the murdered teen’s father were used to justify the boy’s lynching.
While Mamie Till’s courage and mother-love remain a central element of the Emmett Till saga, it was his father’s disturbing story that drew attention in 1955. While we could argue that publishing the legal records of Rice’s parents was routine journalism at work, it was a tactic straight from the Jim Crow playbook, with precedence in the Emmett Till case.
For in October 1955, the military record of Louis Till was leaked. At age 24, Private Louis Till, Emmett’s father, had been convicted of rape and murder while stationed in Italy in 1944. He was, in the words of poet Ezra Pound (imprisoned next to Till for his anti-American, pro-fascist radio broadcasts), “hung yesterday/for murder and rape with trimmings.”
The leak was strategically timed to hit before Bryant and Milam were to face a grand jury for kidnapping Till. The brothers had gotten off in a first trial, when the jury claimed the state had failed to prove that the body fished from Tallahatchie River was indeed Till’s. (The nearly unrecognizable body of Emmett Till was identified by his father’s monogrammed signet ring, and the claim of and his mother’s future husband, a barber, that he recognized the hairline from a trim he had recently given the boy.) When Life magazine reported that Emmett’s father died “fighting for the American proposition that all men are equal,” the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper and The Jackson [Mississippi] Daily News published a report that Louis Till was indeed not a war hero, but a rapist and murderer who met his maker at the end of a rope.
United States Senator James O. Eastland, Democrat of Mississippi, had engineered the leak. Eastland was to Mississippi what Strom Thurmond was to South Carolina: a force in Congress and a vocal defender of Jim Crow.
Eastland’s move to disclose Louis Till’s cause of death was masterful segregationist gamesmanship. The insidious beauty of Eastland’s leak was that it demanded no interpretation. In the perverse world of racial logic, it was a small leap from the theories of 19th- and early-20th century thinkers like Cesare Lombroso (who claimed that some people were just “born criminals”) and Lamarckian inheritance (that parents could pass traits acquired during their lifetimes to their children) to narratives of blacks’ supposedly inherent criminality. Most white Southerners could be counted on to draw the “right” conclusion: Like father, like son.
To them, Louis Till’s execution served as prima facie evidence that Emmett Till was no innocent, but a sexual predator. Never mind that Louis Till had separated from Mamie Till before his son was out of diapers.
For segregationists, Louis Till’s alleged crime and execution suggested a deviance embedded in Emmett’s own DNA (and if that sounds ridiculous and nonscientific, recall a 1991 controversy over an academic conference studying genetics and crime). This assumption was common in a world where—then as now—blackness is perpetually suspect. As a young black male, Emmett Till was, by definition, assumed to lust for white women. Any way the powers of Jim Crow sliced and diced the stories of Louis and Emmett Till, Emmett Till’s death was not regarded as a crime. The lynching was Southern-style rape prevention.
The leak revealed little about how Louis Till, Private 36392273 in the 177th Port Company, ended up on the gallows. According to Till’s military records, he was one of several U.S. soldiers who broke into homes in Civitatecchia, Italy, and raped two local women. When Anna Zanchi, a resident of the second home, vowed to call the military police, the intruders shot her in the stomach. She died from her wounds the next morning.
The evidence against Till and his co-conspirators was a mixed bag. Witnesses claimed that they could identify black Americans by their accents and their skin color, even in moonlight. One co-conspirator testified that Louis Till and others had plotted to stage the nighttime rapes, even bickering over who would get first dibs on the women. Another co-conspirator gave two statements—the first ruled inadmissible by judge-advocates who thought the first had been rendered under coercion.
On June 13, 1945, three judge-advocates in Livorno, Italy, found that “the record of trial is legally sufficient to support the findings and the sentence as to each accused.” Louis Till was hanged on July 2. Eleven days later, the War Department sent Mamie Till a battle casualty report announcing her husband’s death. It was worded cryptically: Louis Till had died “in a non-battle status” due to his own misconduct.
As late as 1948, Mamie Till was still seeking answers; she engaged a lawyer who sent inquiries about Louis’ death and the possibility of survivor benefits for her and Emmett. Mamie Till had no details about Louis Till’s alleged crime until she saw the 1955 media reports. The NAACP fired back, arguing in newspaper reports that Louis Till’s criminal record and death by hanging “may be true, but it has no effect on the case pending” regarding the murder of his son.
Yet Mamie Till and her supporters were pushing back against one of America’s most entrenched traditions: blaming black Americans for their own deaths at the hands of white racism. When faced with cases like Tamir Rice’s and Emmett Till’s, the default is not to question anti-black violence. Instead, we question whether the black victim of racist violence is worthy of our outrage—whether his parents are respectable, whether he was a nice boy in school. Because in this world, the very term “black innocence” is an oxymoron.