I can only imagine the range of deep emotions that the Rev. Wheeler Parker felt as he watched President Joe Biden sign the anti-lynching bill named for his cousin, Emmett Till, into law March 29 during a ceremony at the White House.
Parker is the only living relative of Till’s who was present when Till was kidnapped while they were visiting family in Money, Miss., during August of 1955.
Till was forcefully taken from the home of his great-uncle Moses Wright by two white men — Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam. Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, had accused Till of whistling at her after he bought some bubble gum at the local grocery store she and her husband ran.
Bryant and Milam viciously tortured Till, which included the gruesomeness of shooting him in the head, gouging out one of his eyes, and tying a cotton gin fan with barbed wire around his neck before throwing his marred body into the Tallahatchie River.
Till was only 14 and Parker was 16, innocent teenage boys who had planned on having a great southern summer full of adventure with relatives. What was supposed to be a joyous time of laughter and fellowship ended in a vile tragedy that has haunted America for 66 years.
The Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act is now a federal law that categorizes lynching as a hate crime that is punishable by up to 30 years in prison when a physical attack ends in death or debilitating harm. While it is cause for celebration that this bill was passed, it is a shame that it has taken over a century for lynching legislation to finally get through Congress. The Dyer Anti-lynching Bill was introduced in 1918 by Missouri Representative Leonidas Dyer, who was a White Republican elected by the state’s predominately Black 12th District.
Although there were three anti-lynching measures passed in the House of Representatives between 1920 and 1940, Congress was basically idle regarding the nearly 200 anti-lynching bills that were proposed since the early 1900s.
In 2020, the Equal Justice Initiative published a report titled “Reconstruction in America: Racial Violence after the Civil War, 1865-1876,” which documented approximately 2,000 more lynchings for this dreadful timespan after slavery ended. With these additional murders discovered by the EJI added to the number of killings recorded in their 2015 lynching report, this raises the number of lynching victims to almost 6,500 between 1877 and 1950. The EJI stated that this violent period of mob rule and Jim Crow laws that terrorized Blacks is “an era from which our nation has yet to recover.”
Biden is hopeful that the statute bearing Till’s name will move us forward in racial healing, saying, “The law is not just about the past. It’s about the present and our future, as well.”
The past of the horror inflicted upon Black lynching victims and their families is definitely distressing to reflect upon, especially knowing that nearly all those guilty of these heinous crimes went unpunished.
The present has glaringly shown us that hatred still persists in cases such as the tragic shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery a little over two years ago in Glynn County, Georgia. However, there is hope for justice to shine forth as his killers were found guilty of state murder charges even though they are appealing their convictions. How their appeals are handled will be a significant indicator of where we’re headed in the future.
As Biden’s signature is still fresh on the Till anti-lynching law, I’ve continued to think about how it has weighed heavily on Parker’s mind all these years that Bryant and Milam were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury and later admitted to murdering Till in a 1956 interview with Look Magazine.
I’m imagining the prayers that Parker lifted up to God while laboring in ministry, crying in anguish for Till and mourning the fact that his cousin’s killers never spent a day in prison. I’m also envisioning that Parker asked God to help him love his enemies as Christ commanded and not to hate those who vehemently hated him.
I believe the recent signing ceremony was an answer to Parker’s petitions before the Lord, as he said the bill will give “power to the people who are seeking justice and trying to do the right thing.”
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.