On Monday's Today Show, Oprah Winfrey said that the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 was the "same thing" as the killing of Emmett Till in 1955. Winfrey is not the first to equate the two: Beyonce recently suggested much the same, saying we should "fight for Trayvon the same way the generation before us fought for Emmett Till."
But they are utterly wrong. The killings of Martin and Till are very, very different.
There are some similarities: Both were black teenagers. Martin died soon after turning 17, and Till died soon after turning 14.
And there is a fog surrounding the killings of each of them. Martin was killed in Sanford, Florida, after a fight with George Zimmerman (who shot Martin), and it isn't clear what started that altercation. Till was killed after an encounter with Carolyn Bryant, the 21-year-old wife of Roy Bryant (Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam killed Till). The details of the incident between Till and Carolyn Bryant are disputed: Did Till "wolf-whistle" at Bryant, or say something inappropriate to her, or even grab her? We don't know for sure.
But this is where the similarities break down, because the further details of the deaths of Till and Martin are completely different.
For one thing, look at the time frames. The entire encounter between Martin and Zimmerman was only minutes long. Less than 10 minutes passed between Zimmerman's call to the police and Martin's death. The incident between Till and Carolyn Bryant, however, happened on August 24. Her husband, Roy, returned home on August 26, at which time she told him about the incident. After getting a car, Roy Bryant and his half-brother Milam kidnapped Till soon after midnight the morning of August 28. After taking Till at gunpoint from his relatives' home in Money, Mississippi, where Till was staying (he was from Chicago), Bryant and Milam beat Till repeatedly and ultimately shot him. They then tied Till's body to a large fan and dumped it in the Tallahatchie River.
Martin's killing happened at night, in the rain, in a brief incident that took almost no time at all. Till, on the other hand, was abused over hours and killed for an incident that happened days earlier. Carolyn Bryant slept in her own bed for three nights after meeting Till. If she'd felt she was in any danger from him, she had three days to call the police. The immediacy and urgency of the events surrounding the deaths of Martin and Till aren't anywhere close to being the same.
This highlights another difference: the brutality of their deaths. Again, Till, a 14-year-old, was kidnapped by two grown men, at least one of them armed. Roy Bryant and Milam could have killed Till quickly and easily, but they didn't. They kept him alive for hours so that they could make him suffer. Martin and Zimmerman, meanwhile, probably weren't even within 10 yards of each other for more than a few minutes. Whatever happened, Martin at least had the opportunity to fight back against Zimmerman — per the testimony of Jonathan Good and the cuts and fractured nose Zimmerman was left with — and Martin died almost instantly upon being shot.
And the role of race and racism differs hugely between these two cases as well. Bryant and Milam, after being acquitted, admitted in an interview with Look magazine in 1956 that they had killed Till, and they admitted that it was racially motivated. With repeated use of the n-word, Milam said they killed Till to make sure black people "stay in their place." He said they "ain't gonna vote where I live," and "they ain't gonna go to school with my kids." A black man who talks about having sex with a white woman, Milam said, is "tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him."
Nothing we know about Zimmerman is even remotely like this. To the contrary, it's reported that Zimmerman went with an African-American girl to prom, and that he mentored black kids. Some of his relatives are black. And Zimmerman protested the beating of a black homeless man by a white police officer. If, in spite of all this, Zimmerman is still a closet racist, it is in spite of all this. He's nothing like the blatant bigots that Milam and the Bryants were.
I'm not defending what Zimmerman did, because we don't know what he did. If he instigated the fight between himself and Martin, then Martin was fighting in self-defense, and Zimmerman killed him wrongly. But if Martin instigated the fight, then Zimmerman was the one defending himself. But we don't know which it was, and we probably never will.
But Emmett Till was flat-out murdered. And it was racism. Carolyn Bryant was in no danger from Till, nor was Roy Bryant or J. W. Milam. Bryant and Milam were white supremacists who killed Till out of a bigoted disgust at the idea of miscegenation, the "mixing of the races."
Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, and all those saying the killing of Trayvon Martin is on par with the killing of Emmett Till are utterly wrong.