Eleven years before Emmett Till’s bloated and brutalized corpse was displayed on the pages of Jet magazine as proof of the South’s atrocities against African Americans, there was Willie James Howard.
The difference was that in 1944, there was no Jet magazine to tell Willie’s story, of how the 15-year-old’s crush on a white girl who worked with him in a Live Oak, Fla., dime store became lethal after he sent her a Christmas card and a note expressing his affection.
“I love your name. I love your voice. For a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice,” he wrote.
But those words sounded more sinister than sweet to the girl, Cynthia Goff. She showed the note to her father, Phil Goff, who rounded up two other men and paid Willie a visit on Jan. 2, 1944.
They dragged the youth away at gunpoint as he clung to his mother, bound his hands and feet, and took him and his father, James Howard, to the edge of the Suwannee River, where they forced Willie to jump in—and his father to watch.
Willie’s body was pulled from the river the next day.
Almost immediately, the slaying triggered efforts to get justice. Harry Moore, who was field secretary for the NAACP, took sworn statements from Willie’s parents, who had quickly moved to Orlando, Fla., after the crime, and pushed for a federal investigation.
That was a pragmatic move, considering that Thurgood Marshall, who was then general counsel for the NAACP, was told by Florida Gov. Spessard Holland that he would have a hard time getting a grand jury to believe Willie’s father over Goff and his two accomplices, and possibly Cynthia.
Holland was right.
A Live Oak grand jury refused to indict Goff and his companions, and the Justice Department refused to intervene, saying it had no jurisdiction. Moore continued to push for justice for Willie almost up until the time he and his wife, Harriette, were murdered by Klansmen who bombed their home Christmas night in 1951.
The white men who lynched Willie are all dead now—and they died without having to answer for their atrocity. Efforts to reopen the case—something that would at least get it in the public record that Willie’s killers were murderers and not upstanding white citizens—have not been successful.
Yet as I think about how Emmett was beaten, shot and thrown into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River for allegedly whistling at a white woman, I wonder whether his life might have been spared if the nation had known—or even paid attention to—what happened to Willie 11 years earlier.
Think about it.
Willie was just a year older than Emmett, and he wound up dead after violating the Southern social order. Like Emmett, he wound up in a river, dead because of simply acting like a normal adolescent in a world where being normal was forbidden for black people if it threatened white people’s sense of security or superiority.
Think about how things might have been different, how the trajectory of lynchings and terror might have decreased or disappeared if the Justice Department had found a way to pursue Willie’s case. His body might have been exposed to the nation as grisly evidence of the evil of Deep South racism.
Instead, Willie was invisible. Moore and Marshall were left to make people see him, a dead black youth who did nothing except breach artificially drawn social lines.
It took 11 more years and Emmett in an open casket to make the rest of the nation believe that the terror and the oppression that black people faced in the South was real.
Unfortunately, parallels to that invisibility exist today.
It took Walter Scott’s being fatally shot by a white police officer, Michael Slager, in North Charleston, S.C.—and the shooting being captured on cellphone video—for people to begin to believe that police targeting of black people may be real.
It took Samuel Dubose’s being fatally shot in the head by University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing—and the killing being captured on video—for even more people to begin to believe that law enforcement’s targeting of black people may be real.
So the lesson now, as it was 71 years ago in Willie’s case, and 60 years ago in Emmett’s case, is that we still have a ways to go as a country when it comes to believing black people who suffer or die from what systemic racism has wrought.
And many times, when we finally see the truth, it is way too late.