The power of a false accusation

When I was a child, my grandfather told me a story about a boy.

The boy went to visit relatives. While he was with his cousins, he noticed a woman. The boy whistled at the woman. The woman took offense and told some of her male relatives about it. Those men sought the boy, found him, and tortured him to death. His body was so mutilated that it was difficult to identify him. The boy’s mother had an open casket for his funeral so that people could see what the men had done to her 14-year-old son. The men were found, charged, and taken to trial, but were acquitted. They later admitted that they had killed the boy.

The boy’s name was Emmett Till.

I asked my grandfather why they killed the boy for whistling at the woman. He told me it was because the boy was black and the woman was white. I was about five or six when he told me about Emmett Till. I found it baffling. I could not understand what being black or white had to do with the whistling. My grandfather tried to explain the racial dynamics, but I still could not understand why it mattered.

However, I did understand one thing: the woman probably lied.

Perhaps it was the way my grandfather told me story or perhaps it was just the nature of what he described. As he explained the racial dynamics of the 1950s, the more I thought the woman lied. It turns out that my childhood assumption was true. Continue reading

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