When Camille Cosby, the wife of Bill Cosby, issued a scathing statement on Thursday denouncing the verdict that found her husband guilty of sexual assault, she painted him as a casualty of an unfair, racist system. She blamed the media, the prosecution and the victim, and then made a comparison to one of the nation’s most infamous crimes.
“Since when are all accusers truthful?” Mrs. Cosby said. “History disproves that. For example, Emmett Till’s accuser immediately comes to mind.”
It was the second time in a week that a member of Bill Cosby’s inner circle linked him to Till, and while the comment drew immediate backlash, it was merely the most recent invocation of Till’s name as analogue.
Beyond its impact on the civil rights movement, Till’s memory has inspired protesters, historians and documentarians to the present day; endured in popular culture as a synonym for injustice; and occasionally rekindled anger when used in unexpected ways.
Airickca Gordon-Taylor, a cousin of Till, said in a phone interview on Thursday that Mrs. Cosby’s comments were in “poor taste.”
“You’ve got apples and you have oranges and there’s nothing about either situation that is in alignment with the other,” said Ms. Gordon-Taylor, the head of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, named after Till’s mother.
In 1955, Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Jim Crow-era Mississippi when, witnesses said, he whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant Donham. It was never clear whether Till actually whistled, but the truth mattered little: Four days later, he was kidnapped from his great-uncle’s home, beaten, tortured and shot. His body was then dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
Two men were arrested — Roy Bryant, Ms. Donham’s husband, and his half brother, J.W. Milam — but they were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury. Later, both men admitted to the crime in an interview with Look Magazine, but could not be retried because of the law’s double-jeopardy protections.
Till’s mother wanted an open coffin at his funeral so people could see what had happened to her boy, and a photograph of her agony became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Till’s story received renewed attention in the 1980s, in part because of a documentary that aired on a Chicago television station, “The Murder and the Movement.” In the years since, Till has been the subject of several books, including one by his mother, and more documentaries. In 2004, the F.B.I. reopened the investigation into Till’s case to explore whether anyone could be charged. No one was.
Last year Timothy B. Tyson, a Duke University professor and author of the 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” revealed that Ms. Donham had told him that one account she had given in front of the judge in her husband’s case — that Till had grabbed her and was menacing — was false. Some commenters on Twitter have suggested that if Mr. Cosby could be prosecuted for a sexual assault that occurred more than a decade ago, Ms. Donham should face prosecution as well.
In recent years, Till’s name has frequently been used in discussions of unarmed black men and boys shot dead by police or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who ultimately was acquitted.
“It’s not just a conceptual overlap between Trayvon, Black Lives Matter and Emmett Till, but a very personal overlap,” said Dave Tell, a professor at the University of Kansas who has studied Till extensively. “The Till family is very close to the family of Trayvon Martin. They see Emmett Till as the protohistory of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
He added: “We’re at a moment right now where more are talking about Emmett Till than has been the case in 60-plus years.”
Some prominent writers have sought to tamp down the Martin and Till comparisons. Eugene Robinson, a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote in 2012: “To make a facile comparison is a disservice to history — and to the memory of both young men. It is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.”
Eric Holder, who was attorney general when a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., fatally shot Michael Brown in 2014, compared Mr. Brown’s death to Till’s at an event in Washington where a tree was planted in Till’s memory.
“There is an enduring legacy that Emmett Till has left with us that we still have to confront as a nation,” Mr. Holder said.
Every corner of pop culture has lamented the Till tragedy, from Bob Dylan, who sang “The Death of Emmett Till” in 1962, to the rapper Rick Ross, who referenced Till on his 2010 track, “Tears Of Joy.” The comedian Dave Chappelle compared Till’s death to President Trump’s election as potential catalysts for change in his recent Netflix special, “Equanimity.” A short film about Till’s case, “My Nephew Emmett,” told from the perspective of the great-uncle whose home Till was taken from, was nominated for an Oscar this year.
When the N.B.A. star LeBron James had a racial slur painted on the front of his home in Los Angeles last year, he talked about Till.
“I think back to Emmett Till’s mom actually, and the reason that she had an open casket is because she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as a hate crime and being black in America,” Mr. James said.
The image of Till’s coffin has become its own reference point transcending race. When the mother of Noah Pozner, one of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, laid him to rest in an open coffin with a cloth covering the place his jawline should have been, she said, “I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven.” Gun control supporters made the comparison to Till’s mother.
But some invocations, like Mrs. Cosby’s, have been questionable. In 2013, the rapper Lil Wayne used Till’s name as a metaphor in a vulgar sexual lyric, lost a Pepsi endorsement and subsequently apologized to Till’s family. In his debut single in 2004, “Through The Wire,” Kanye West compared his own face after a car accident to that of Till in his coffin, and Till remained in Mr. West’s lexicon in 2010 when he compared the fallout after his infamous MTV Video Music Awards outburst against Taylor Swift to “a neo-Emmett Till.”
And others have triggered criticism even when they intended to pay tribute: When a white artist, Dana Schutz, displayed her painting of Till’s open coffin at the Whitney Biennial last year, she was accused of cultural appropriation.
“Emmett Till is just packed all in our heads,” said Clenora Hudson-Weems, a professor at the University of Missouri and the author of “Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement.” “We can’t get rid of it. It’s in our heads. It has indelibly impacted our American culture.”
But for the Till family, his death is more than just a cultural landmark.
“I just hope that when people speak about Emmett in certain contexts, they need to remember that there are people who are still alive in my family that suffered and survived that horrific incident,” his cousin, Ms. Gordon-Taylor, said. “They were in the house when that happened — I still have loved ones who relive that in their minds.”
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