Before Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin, there was Emmett Till, a black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman. The failure to punish his killers for their crimes—helped by a leak of his father's World War II military file—made Till an agonizing symbol of how the American legal system has been used as an instrument of racial oppression. Six decades after Emmett Till's murder, and seven decades after Louis Till was executed by the U. S. Army, John Edgar Wideman investigates whether the father, like the son, suffered a perversion of justice of the kind that remains one of the ugliest scars on America's soul.

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Towards the end of the summer of 1955 I saw in Jet magazine a scary photo of a dead colored boy murdered in Money, Mississippi, whose mutilated face looked like a black bug somebody had squashed under a thumb. I was fourteen. Emmett Till's age that summer they murdered him. Him colored, me colored. Him a boy, me too. Him so absolutely dead he's my death, too.

I fell in love and had my heart broken the first time that same summer, but the big news on our end of Copeland Street, in Pittsburgh, where a few raggedy houses held a few poor colored families, was neither my aching heart nor the far-off Mississippi murder of Emmett Till, who we whispered about like it was our fault, a shameful, dirty secret. The big news that summer was a showroom-fresh, three-tone green Mercury docked alien as a spaceship at the curb on our end of the block. Like everybody else colored on the street I couldn't get enough of the spit-shined, fighter-jet-sleek car. Its owner was Big Jim the gambler, who people said paid cash he won on a single roll of the dice for his new car.

One evening that summer my father with a scowl in his voice hollers from the kitchen: Get your tail in here, boy. Why didn't you come in the house when your mother called you last night.

Wasn't late, Daddy. Not hardly past ten o'clock.

Didn't ask you what the damn time was. Don't care what hour of night or day, when your mother tells you do something, you know you better do it. And quick.

I wasn't nowhere, Daddy. Just sitting downstairs right across the street in Big Jim's car where Mom could see me if she looked.

Since when you grown enough to be sitting around at night in anybody's car.

Wasn't going nowhere, Daddy.

Then what you two doing in the damned car.

Nothing.

What he say to you.

Nothing, Daddy.

Well, I'll be talking to Mr. Big Jim soon's I get home from work tomorrow. Meanwhile, you're grounded. Don't set your foot out the door without asking your mother. And don't you even think about going anywhere near that lard-ass yellow man or his shit green car.

The big news on our end of Copeland Street, in Pittsburgh, was neither my aching heart nor the far-off Mississippi murder of Emmett Till, who we whispered about like it was our fault, a shameful, dirty secret.

Three-tone green. Three colors were a fad that summer. All kinds of brand-new shiny rides in crazy color combinations dazzled the streets. Colors the future. Emmett Till's black-and-white photo in Jet the past, an old story of old-timey, terrible shit white men did to black boys down south. Changes coming fast but some things don't change. A long time after that summer of '55 and I'm still trying to make precise sense of my deep fear, my father's deep anger, my own deep anger, my father's deep fear, strutting peacock cars, fathers and sons afraid of each other. War and hate and terror and love.