From Emmett Louis Till to Trayvon Martin, there has never been a shortage of violent or discriminatory acts towards the Black community. And the crime: being born with a skin color that could never be light enough. Beyond slavery—for the past 55-plus years—monstrous crimes have been committed with little recourse or repercussions.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time became a perpetual justification for racist opportunity, and authoritative figures often looked the other way when they weren’t helping carry out a crime. On average, it took more than 30 days to charge a White person with a crime committed against a Black person, and years to convict—if it ever got to that.
Realizing that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Black Enterprise looks back at some of the most horrific and gruesome moments in Black history. Soon many will realize history is just a year behind.
On February 21, 1965, three years before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Malcolm X was shot 15 times while getting ready to deliver a speech at Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. The civil rights leader was pronounced dead upon his arrival to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Three men were later convicted of his murder– Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson.
The Untimely Death of Emmett Till
A black man sleeping with a White woman during the Civil Rights Movement was unheard of, but whistling at one was just as bad. Unfortunately, 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till learned that the hard way. During the summer of 1955, Till was visiting his family in Money, Mississippi when he caught himself interacting in an “unacceptably” flirtatious manner with a 21-year-old White woman named Carolyn Bryant in Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Carolyn happened to be the wife of the store’s owner.
Four days later, not realizing the boundaries between blacks and Whites were different down South than in the Midwest, the promising Illinois native found himself in the hands of the White woman’s husband and his half-brother, Roy and J.W. respectively, at 2:30am. After taking Till to the Tallahatchie River, the two men brutally beat and shot him; “tied him up barbed wire to a large metal fan; and shoved his mutilated body into the water.” Emmett’s uncle, Moses Wright, told police his nephew was missing, but three days passed before his body was recovered from the waters.
As a hub of worship among the Black community and meeting grounds for civil rights leaders, the 16th Street Baptist Church became a primary target for Ku Klux Klan members. The bomb went off at 10:22am on the east side of church building, stopping the scheduled 11:00am service. The explosion was the third to happen in 11 days, “just after a federal court order had come down mandating the integration of Alabama’s school system.” Without question, outrage poured throughout the streets of the Heart of Dixie’s largest city. Countless protests and violence swarmed the hearts of thousands as the Black community came together to mourn the loss of four innocent girls.
The FBI was informed of the KKK’s involvement in the church bombing in 1965, specifically focused on Klan leader, Robert E. Chambliss. But because former president J. Edgar Hoover was head of the government organization during the initial investigation, no leads were followed in the case because he didn’t believe in the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until 1977, five years after Hoover’s death, that Alabama Attorney General Bob Baxley chose to reopen the 16 Street Church bombing case. Chambliss was convicted of murder later that year, but didn’t live to see 10 years of sentence. He died in 1985.
The Mississippi Murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner
For two days, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner—now known as the Mississippi civil rights workers—were beaten, tortured, shot and buried by the Mississippi White Knights Ku Klux Klan chapter and officials of Neshoba County, near Meridian, Mississippi. The three men were working together in the Civil Rights Movement, helping Black people register to vote. The chapter’s Imperial Wizard, Sam Bowers, did not like Schwerner’s involvement in Black voter registration and decided he needed to be killed—he was a White civil rights activist defying White supremacy. So on June, 21, 1963, Chaney, a Black man, Goodman and Schwerner were returning from a trip to Philadelphia, MS when they were pulled over for speeding by Cecil Price, Deputy Sherrif and a White Knights’ member. Price held the three men in custody while the Klan prepared to end their Civil Rights brigade.
It wasn’t until June 21, 2005, 41 years after the KKK began to slowly torture the three Mississippi civil rights’ workers, that Edgar Ray Killen, “known as an outspoken white supremacist and part-time Baptist minister,” was convicted of three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
The James Byrd, Jr., Texas Murder
“In Texas, they lynch Negroes.” James Farmer, Jr.—played by Denzel Whitaker in the Harpo Films movie, The Great Debaters, 2007—said those five words on stage as he debated the topic of civil disobedience being a moral weapon in the fight for justice. “My teammates and I saw a man strung up by his neck and set on fire…what was this Negro’s crime that he should be hung in a dark forest filled with fog? Was he a thief, a killer or just a Negro…My opponent says, ‘nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral,’ but there is no rule of law in the Jim Crow South.”
While Berry, Brewer and King were immediately arrested, and all men charged with capital murder, the small town of Jasper, Texas—with a current approximate population of 8,000—unhappily found itself in the public eye. It’s reported that King and Brewer met in prison when joining a White supremacy group years before the murder. Shawn Berry was spared the death penalty as evidence proved he was “not” a racist. He currently sits in a Texas prison serving out his life sentence. Brewer and King were both given the death penalty—Brewer was killed by lethal injection in September of 2011. To no public surprise, the night before Brewer’s execution he said, “he felt no remorse and would do it all over again.” King continues to wait for his execution.
Hip-Hop’s Deadliest Murders: Tupac & Biggie
The murders of two of hip-hop’s greatest, Tupac Amaru Shakur and Christopher “B.I.G.” Wallace, literally divided a nation. Two promising stars—one signed to Death Row Records and the other signed to Bad Boy Records, respectively—who were once friends, died at war with each other just six months apart.
The coastal rap feud began in 1994 when Biggie asked Tupac to come over to Quad Studios in Midtown Manhattan. After walking on the elevator to go upstairs, Pac was jumped, robbed and shot. When B.I.G.’s entourage realized what happened, they rushed downstairs to help Shakur but it was too late. The war between the rappers commenced, as Tupac believed his friend, the Notorious B.I.G., set him up.
While fingers continue to get pointed in these horrific murders, both cases remain unsolved.
The Sean Bell Shooting
On November 25, 2006, just hours before 23-year-old Sean Bell’s wedding, undercover police officers fired 50 shots into the would-be groom in the wee hours of the morning. Bell was leaving his bachelor party, which took place at a Club Kalua, a Queens, New York strip club that was under police surveillance.
When leaving Club Kalua, Bell and his friends got into their silver Nissan Altima and turned a corner away from the club where they were“struck by a black unmarked police minivan bearing several plainclothes officers.” In an effort to back up and go the other direction, Bell hit the sidewalk, almost running over one of the undercover officers. Moments later, police responded by letting nearly 50 rounds of bullets rip into Bell’s Altima. The groom-to-be “was shot in the neck, shoulder and right arm, and was taken to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.”
Initially charged with manslaughter, Detectives Isnora, Cooper and Oliver were acquitted of all charges in May 2008. Droves of people blocked bridge and tunnel entrances in an effort to shut down the city. Many held signs that read, “We are Sean Bell. This Whole Damn System is Guilty.” And with Reverend Al Sharpton as their leader, the public flocked to 1 Police Plaza “and five other key locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn to protest the acquittal of three cops who killed Bell in a 50-bullet barrage on his wedding day.”
Haiti’s Catastrophic Earthquake
In January 2010, the United States Ambassador to Haiti said the earthquake that took place in that country was a “catastrophe for the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.” The country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, suffered excessive damage with bodies and building structure scattered along the ground.
The 7.0-magnitude earthquake was noted as “the most powerful [earthquake] to hit Haiti in a century.” The ground shaking was so intense that its movement “could be felt strongly in Eastern Cuba, more than 200 miles away.” One hundred days after the earthquake hit, the head of the United Nations estimated that at least 300,000 people had died due to horrific disaster, at least 300,000 were wounded and more than one million people were left homeless.
While several organizations have been held scrutinized for their conduct, not all are using Haiti’s earthquake as a get rich scheme. The “American Red Cross has spent nearly all of its $486 million in donations…establishing permanent housing,” while the Haitian government “has committed to paying tuition for 900,000 children.” Rebuilding the community and the economy won’t be easy as the earthquake’s total damage equates to $7.8 billion.