Separated by a thousand miles, two state borders, and nearly six decades, two young African American boys met tragic fates that seem remarkably similar today: both walked into a small market to buy some candy; both ended up dead.
The first boy is Emmett Till, who was 14 years old in the summer of 1955 when he walked into a local grocery store in Money, Miss., to buy gum. He was later roused from bed, beaten brutally, and possibly shot by a group of White men who later dumped his body in a nearby river. They claimed he had stepped out of his place by flirting with a young White woman, the wife of the store's owner. The second boy is Trayvon Martin, who was 17 years old late last winter when he walked into a 7-Eleven near a gated community in Sanford, Fla., to buy Skittles and an iced tea. He was later shot to death at close range by a mixed-race man, who claimed Martin had behaved suspiciously and seemed out of place. The deaths of both boys galvanized the nation, drew sympathy and disbelief across racial lines, and, through the popular media, prompted a reexamination of race relations.
In the aftermath of Martin's death last February, a handful of reporters and columnists, and many members of the general public, made the obvious comparison: Trayvon Martin, it seemed, was the Emmett Till of our times. And while that comparison has some merit — the boys' deaths are similar both in some of their details and in their tragic outcome — these killings must also be understood as the result of very different strains of racial tension in America. The racism that led to Till's death was embedded in a virulent ideology of White racial superiority born out of slavery and the Jim Crow codes, particularly in the Deep South. That sort of racism hinges on the idea that Blacks are an inherently inferior race, a morally null group that deserves both the subjugation and poverty it gets.