From Emmett Till to Jordan Davis, a Foolish, Lethal Fear of Black Teens

A Florida man shot and killed the 17-year-old in a parking lot dispute over hip-hop. Why is standing out still a death sentence for black kids in America?

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There was a time when a little music, even a whistle, could get a young man killed.

Or at least that was the case with a kid named Emmett. He was a boy of 14, Chicago born and raised, with a persistent stutter left over from an early bout with polio. But Emmett was as confident as they come. A prankster, he would tease his friends and put underwear over their heads while they slept. Emmett was also serious at times, and knew how to stand up for himself. He helped his single mother, Mamie, with chores around the house, and once when he was 11 and his ex-stepfather threatened to hurt his mom, Emmett stepped in and said enough was enough.

One summer Emmett begged his mother to let him travel from Chicago to Money, Mississippi, to spend time with his great-uncle, Rev. Mose Wright. Reluctantly, Mamie agreed, and Emmett found himself down in the Delta. And that’s when a whistle became a deadly sin.

Emmett was shopping in Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market one Sunday afternoon when a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the proprietor, was working the store. Carolyn and Emmett were alone together for about one minute. The accounts of their brief encounter differ widely. Some folks say Emmett whistled at Carolyn as a manner of catcall, expressing his admiration. Others say that Emmett always whistled—it helped him to overcome his stuttering—and he meant no harm at all. Either way, a whistle, just a flint of music, rang out that Sunday. And that whistle meant that Emmett had to die.

Because this was 1955 in the Mississippi Delta, men like Carolyn’s husband, Roy, didn’t appreciate young black boys whistling at their wives. So, a few days after the incident, Roy and his half-brother J.W. pulled up to Emmett’s great-uncle’s home in the dead of night and kidnapped Emmett at gunpoint. They drove him to a nearby barn and a few other places as well. They pistol-whipped Emmett. They tortured him, and gouged out his eye. Finally, they shot 14-year-old Emmett above his right ear, and tossed him in the Tallahatchie River, his body weighted down with a fan.

And when his body was found, and his killers arrested and then acquitted, the life and death of Emmett Till became a rallying cry—in part because his mother bravely left the casket at Emmett’s funeral open, so that everyone could see the devastation that Mississippi had wrought.

Our modern ears hear about Emmett Till now and ring with indignation. How could this happen to a teenager, guilty of just a little whistling, a little music in the wind? If we would’ve been there, we would have done something. Surely we would have stood up, and stopped it, or hunted his killers down.

Not so fast. Before we jump to courageous conclusions, we should know that it might still be a death sentence for a black kid to make a little music. Don’t believe me? Ask the family of Jordan Davis.

Jordan, 17 years old, was headed to the military, probably the Marines. Like Emmett Till, by all accounts he was a jokester, and loved being around his friends. But he also knew how to be serious when the occasion called—a recent interview with Jordan’s mother, Lucia, reveals that he was active in the Air Force ROTC in high school, and spent time in deep philosophical conversations about life, and God.

But, like Emmett, a little music got in the way. In November 2012, Jordan Davis and his friends were sitting in an SUV outside a Jacksonville, Fla., convenience store, listening to hip-hop, apparently rather loud. Michael Dunn, a white man, was parked beside them and complained about the volume.

Then came an argument. And then, incensed, Michael Dunn pulled out a 9mm handgun. He shot into Jordan’s SUV several times, the vehicle with Jordan Davis sped off, and then Dunn stepped out of his own car and fired some more.

Jordan Davis was killed. Michael Dunn and his girlfriend drove to a hotel, and ordered a pizza. He didn’t report the shooting, and was tracked down only because someone recorded his license plate. Dunn told police he felt threatened by Davis, and thought the young black boys had a gun. But no gun was found in Davis’s car.

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All because of a little hip-hop, which rubbed the wrong guy the wrong way.

Or maybe not?

Is it possible that this is greater than music?

Is it possible that Emmett’s whistle wasn’t about his whistle at all, but about the fear that boys like Emmett placed in the heart of those in his corner of the world?

Is it possible that Trayvon Martin’s hoodie wasn’t about his hoodie, but the anxiety that black teenagers in hoodies tend to create among those they encounter?

And maybe Jordan Davis’s case isn’t about rap music? Maybe it’s about a culture where a black teenage life is still considered to be so cheap that it can be extinguished after a single gas-station confrontation?

Or maybe it’s all just… whistling. Who knows.