Aug. 28 marks 63 years since the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. In 1955, Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman, falsely claimed the black boy had touched her while making sexual advances. Afterward, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother savagely beat Till and then shot him to death and cast him into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River.
Despite overwhelming evidence that Howard Bryant and John Milam murdered and mutilated Till, an all-white jury acquitted the two men after roughly an hour of deliberation.
Speeches across the country eulogized Till. Photos of his bloated body seared the boy into memory and signaled that a country founded on white racial grievances was still a profoundly dangerous place for black people.
Yet in the half-century since the teen’s murder, many of the victories notched in Till’s name ― in the realms of housing equality, education and voting rights ― have been rescinded through targeted policies and court rulings. Meanwhile, advancements in technology ― namely, portable recording devices and social media platforms to share what they’ve logged ― have captured the sort of lethal white racial angst largely obscured in the decades since Till’s death.
With that, the killings of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis and others have put new faces on black anguish. Adding to this anxiety, white people have been repeatedly reporting black people to police for merely existing in public ― from waiting in coffee shops to holding cookouts. This surveillance has effectively set parameters around where black people can operate comfortably, without scrutiny from their white peers and law enforcement.
For the anniversary of Till’s murder, HuffPost talked to six young black men from around the country to ask how they’ve internalized these stories of surveillance and what — if anything — they have been instructed to do to avoid the fates of the black boys they’ve seen on television and in history books.
Growing up, I got the police talk before I got the “birds and the bees” talk … And it’s not like every adult around me trained me to think, “No, police are bad. Don’t like them.” I just had my own experiences where I thought, “Why are you treating me like this? For what?”
Feeling powerless that many times growing up can make you angry all the time. It puts fear in your heart, for real. And for black kids, growing up trying to have pride and everything, it’s just a messed up way to live, especially when you’re young and you’re worried about getting hurt just for being you.
New York City
Trayvon Martin was, for me, this kind of eye-opening moment when I saw that being black is a legitimate disadvantage. That was the moment when I actually recognized race — recognized that it would be a problem for me. I was so young when it happened. Beforehand, I hadn’t heard of anybody like Emmett Till or really anything like that.
My dad taught me how to kind of adjust my blackness to kind of assimilate into an environment. Like in New Hampshire, I have to be cognizant about whether everything I say is “grammatically correct” so I pass as what I guess is articulate and not “the black guy who doesn’t know anything.”
I’m 17. I was raised in New York but I spent the beginning of my childhood in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and I can sort of see the difference in my experiences in all those places. In New York, there is a lot of focus on diversity and teaching us about microaggressions and white fragility. I mean, all that stuff has been articulated to me a good amount, which I think has helped me talk about the issues and help white people around me. But I also spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, and there, in a state that’s almost totally white, I recognize how different it is. The implicit racism kind of works so that unless something obviously tragic and racist happens, if you try to fight against racism you get a lot of retaliation.
Where I live, the cops who will mess with you are on the opposite side of town, where the white people are. So we black people don’t go over there like that. When we’re in our territory, which is the hood, the police don’t really come around. Sometimes, the issue is that there aren’t enough. They stroll through, but it’s nothing we’re really afraid of.
But when we’re outside of our territory — when we try to expand our horizons — it’s a different story. That’s why a lot of us feel comfortable in the hood: because we know it’s where we’re safe from that. I live in the hood, like everybody else. And due to police brutality along with the fact that white people generally have the upper hand in conflicts, I feel comfortable walking in my area at night rather than an all-white neighborhood.
I was in the sixth grade when the Trayvon Martin situation happened, and I remember all of us diving into that, and we were so young. For my generation, that was our Rodney King.
I was raised in Nebraska, which is a very Republican state, and a low-key racist state. As a young cow, I was taught to avoid all transactions with police or older white men — I was taught to stay out of that circumstance because whatever happens, the judicial system can punish me in a way I can’t control.
My friends and I — all of our mentors tell us to “stay out of trouble” like we’re looking for trouble, but we’re really not. We’re just being us. And we understand the circumstances that can unfold at any given time, especially since I’m in Nashville now. Tennessee is where the KKK was founded, so my awareness while I’m out here is on 10.
Redondo Beach, California
Sometimes, you get a little paranoid about what could happen when you’re out and about. I’m from Redondo Beach in Los Angeles County, where I believe the black population is only about 4 percent. I remember moving down here and walking to get a burger, and seeing people looking at me like they’d never seen a black person before. It’s just kind of weird, and once you get that feeling it’s kind of like, “Man, do you really want to go outside and always communicate with other people who not only don’t look like you, but don’t have an accepting mindset?” I’m always aware of that now.
Two years ago, I was walking home from getting food and I guess there was a robbery that happened there around that time. The police stopped me and said I looked like the suspect, and I remember just sitting on that curb scared, speechless and still. I thought to myself: One false move and you never know what could happen. Ever since then, I’ve always made sure to get home at a reasonable time. And that experience has gone from generation to generation. I’m pretty sure we’re all dealing with some post-traumatic stress in some way.
My father is a police officer who’s been on the job for 20-plus years. He’s always told me if I’m ever stopped by a cop, always respect them. Whatever they ask me to do, comply with it and don’t do anything to give them a reason to detain me, tase me or do whatever. And I’ve never been stopped by police, but I’ve had occasions in public with my friends when women will clutch their purse as we walk by, or walk in the opposite direction.
In society, people see African-American men and get frightened — they fear for their lives. But not everyone can be painted with the same brush. Every one of us isn’t a so-called thug. I’m a very educated person. I have to make myself distinct in that way, but at the same time, you can’t really make yourself distinct as an African-American person.
In a sense, my dad is going through something similar. He doesn’t like to be lumped together with other officers who are harassing people for no reason. He’s had thoughts of retirement and thoughts of a new career because of what’s going on [with police shootings] in society. It’s sad that you have people who enjoy their career but, you know, there are people who are corrupt. People think every cop is “swine,” every cop is this or that, but more than anything, it’s sad that certain officers allow themselves to portray that picture for the whole department.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.