HE WAS just a gorgeous kid. Pure gorgeous. At 14, he was handsome with a beautifully sculpted face and great dark eyes. Even though he was so young, he could laughingly carry off a fedora. A picture of him with that grown-up hat tilted back from his face was printed out and pinned, along with two others, to the inside lid of his coffin by his mother. That, of course, was after the teenager was lynched.
Emmet Till was lynched in the American Deep South, a place where, in 1955, it was unsafe to be a young black man, particularly a young black man who had been raised mainly in a state that was less bigoted than Mississippi, where the accusation was made against him.
A white woman claimed he whistled at her, grabbed her, and wouldn’t let her go. Her husband, her brother-in-law, and a bunch of other family members found the child and killed him with such brutality that he was unrecognisable.
His mother decided that the world should know what had been done to her beautiful boy and insisted on a public funeral service with an open coffin and the processions of people who passed that coffin could see his destroyed face.
Rosa Parks, the woman who refused to move to the back of a bus, thereby sparking the civil rights movement in the United States, took her action four days after the hugely public funeral of Emmet Till and always maintained that when she was arrested, she thought about the dead boy.
In the last year, more than half a century later, the woman who accused him and whose family lynched him contacted an historian and told him a quite different tale. She recanted. Yes, the kid had whistled at her, but he had done none of the other things of which she accused him.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what was done to him,” she said.
Why she made the original accusation is unclear. Why she recanted equally so. She seems to have lived with violence within her own family. Her husband and brother in law were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury, and then announced to a magazine that they’d actually done it, knowing they were safe from retrial because of the principle of double jeopardy. We also know the accuser lost her own son while he was young.
The historian to whom she confessed suggests she may be one of the many victims in the Emmet Till case, while she is far from being the most victimised in a horrific racist murder that serves to remind us that lyric in Billie Holliday’s grim song, ‘Southern Trees bear Bitter Fruit’ which tells of murders committed within living memory.
The book about Emmet Till’s accuser taking back the claim which led to his ghastly death has refreshed the fame of his name in recent months, which perhaps explains why one of Bill Cosby’s publicists, appearing on TV in the direct aftermath of the comedian being found guilty of drugging and having sex with a woman who could not consent to it, chose to liken the trial to the lynching of Emmet Till.
What was almost as revolting as the tasteless comparison was the fact that the woman — Ebonee Benson, who has been pictured lending an elbow to help her legally-blind client negotiate the corridors of the court — clearly believed it to be valid.
When TV presenter George Stephanopoulos raised the question of the number of women, outside of the one last week’s jury decided had been assaulted, Benson launched off on a series of rhetorical questions.
“Since when are all people honest?” she asked. “Since when are all women honest? We can look at Emmet Till, for example.”
Stephanopoulos looked outraged by the link, but the other publicist, Andrew Wyatt, weighed into describe his client’s situation in similar terms to those used by Benson: “This became a public lynching.”
First of all, neither should be speaking for Cosby. Whenever you see PR people on TV fronting up for clients, those PR people are in the wrong place. Even if they completely believe what they’re saying, they are still being paid to say it, which pulls the rug out from under their credibility. But — I hear you ask — what about lawyers who front up for their clients?
That’s an interesting one. Law firms, whether they are tiny local operations or massive partnerships, do not have their reputations or brands tainted by acting for those convicted of rape, murder, paedophilia or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Everybody accepts that the accused, and even the convicted, have the right to legal support. Nobody, on the other hand, takes that view about communications advice, and so, while it does no harm to a legal practice to represent someone in a case involving major public controversy, any communications consultancy would think long and hard about doing the same.
America has a different tradition. But even within that different tradition, it has to be asked how a young professional like Benson could liken the case of a child beaten to death on the basis of a false accusation to the case of an 80-year-old undergoing legal due process on accusations which do not carry a death penalty or the possibility of murderous revenge. Especially when we know that Cosby has already admitted buying quaaludes, a potent narcotic, to administer to young women for the purpose of having sex with them.
President Donal Trump, when accused of having employed prostitutes in Russia to engage in a particularly vomitous activity in front of him, denied it by telling his former FBI director that he isn’t the sort of guy who uses sex workers, because why would he need to? Lots of handsome, rich and reckless men use and always have used, sex workers. (And no, I don’t think Trump is handsome.)
Sex with prostitutes has a particular attraction for some men. Always has had. The fact they may be married or have the potential to sleep with women they would not have to pay is in a separate compartment in their head to the pleasure of temporarily owning a woman.
APPLY that to the Cosby case. Here is a man who, when he was younger, was good looking, athletic, famous, funny, and rich. Any one of those is an aphrodisiac.
In concert, they add up to a phenomenal capacity for successful philandering. So why would Cosby need sex partners to be anaesthetised past the point of participation? What kind of perversion is sex with a woman in a corpse-like coma?
This week, a museum dedicated to lynching opened in the US, to honour the thousands of (mostly but not exclusively) men who died in terror and pain at the hands of white males, frequently watched by applauding white men and women.
Bill Cosby’s publicists might make a visit to that museum in order to fully understand the difference between 21st-century justice and 20th-century racist killing.