Murder can be a message, and the men who lynched Emmett Till in 1955 surely sought to communicate through his broken and bloated flesh. The 14-year-old boy falsely accused of sexually harassing Carolyn Bryant in Money, Mississippi, instantly became both a victim and a lesson. Had his killers wanted to merely scare him, they could have. No, Emmett was beaten, shot, then tied to a cotton gin fan and set down in the Tallahatchie River to tell every black person in the surrounding area – and perhaps the entire United States – that our lives were meaningless, our civil rights a mere rumor, our bodies useful only as driftwood.
Emmett’s slaughter was a hate crime, surely, by any standards. It is difficult to conceive of someone doing that to a child without a deep loathing in his heart. But when Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, forced America to look upon her desecrated son in his casket, publishing that horrifying David Jackson photograph in Jet magazine, she also shined a light on how terrorism works. Racial brutality isn’t so much about what perpetrators feel, or even what they seek to convey to their victims. It is about the message those villains want to send to all of us who are potential Emmett Tills, and are left to bear witness and live under threat.