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Walking While Black: Killing of Trayvon Martin Evokes Memories of Civil Rights Martyr Emmett Till

StoryMarch 30, 2012
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The killing of Trayvon Martin has drawn comparisons to that of civil rights martyr Emmett Till, who was slain at the age of 14 in Mississippi in 1955. We’re joined by Cynthia Dagnal-Myron, a writer who was taught by Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley. Dagnal-Myron is a former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and Arizona Daily Star who has also spent over 20 years as a teacher and administrator. Her most recent article for is "For Trayvon and Emmett: My 'Walking While Black' Stories." Comparing the Jim Crow era to today, Dagnal-Myron says, "I don’t know how much progress has been made. ... [In] your day-to-day life, if you’re an African-American woman or man, you still feel the things that my parents felt. ... You’re still treated the way that my parents were afraid that I would be treated. It’s just an everyday thing for me. So, for those who think that it’s over, they’re not walking in our shoes." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: For more on Trayvon Martin, we’re joined by Cynthia Dagnal-Myron. She is a former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Arizona Daily Star who has also spent over 20 years as a teacher and administrator. Her own fifth-grade teacher was Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, who was murdered at the age of 14 in Mississippi in 1955. Her most recent piece appeared on; it’s called "For Trayvon and Emmett: My 'Walking While Black' Stories."

Welcome to Democracy Now!


JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us a little bit, in terms of the article that you had, how the Trayvon Martin incident had an impact on you and the article that you wrote?

CYNTHIA DAGNAL-MYRON: The first thing that happened was I was thinking about all the confusion that was going on about what had actually happened, and as a black woman, I was just thinking about my own life experiences and how none of this really surprised me, because of the things that had happened to me. So, as all this was swirling—and it’s beginning to get worse—I was just thinking about how most of us, most black women and men, have had experiences—we call it "walking while black." We’ve all had these experiences. So, for us, this was just another instance of someone being mistaken for a thug or something he was not. And it was just—I was angry. That’s all I can say. I was just angry.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a remarkable story. I was just looking at a piece you wrote, Cynthia Dagnal-Myron, as assistant principal of the Pistor Middle School in Tucson, Arizona, about your fifth-grade teacher, Mamie Till Mobley. Can you tell us the story of Mamie Till Mobley and her son Emmett Till?

CYNTHIA DAGNAL-MYRON: I was a fifth grader. So what we knew as children was that we had a very famous teacher. My experience was being horrified at—I think the entire community was horrified at the pictures that we saw. And what I remember most was that Mamie—or Mrs. Mobley, as we called her—was very, very determined to make sure that her son was not forgotten. She was also very, very determined that we, as students, would excel and go on to be on the front lines to do something about the ignorance that had killed her son. And so, I remember her just as a very remarkable woman, a strong-willed woman who was not going to let her son be forgotten or his death be in vain.

AMY GOODMAN: She did something incredible. I mean, here, this was her only child, and she sends him to Money, Mississippi, for the summer to get out of the city, to get out of Chicago, to be with his aunt and uncle and cousins. He is ripped out of bed in the middle of the night by a white mob, and he ends up in the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. And when his body was dredged up and taken in a casket back to Chicago, she said she wanted the casket open for the wake and the funeral. She wanted the world to see the ravages of racism and the brutality of bigotry. What did she tell you? And we are showing those images now; for folks listening on the radio, you can go to our website at You know, his distended, mutilated head, thousands saw. Black publications like Jet magazine actually published them. Talk about—

CYNTHIA DAGNAL-MYRON: Yes. What did she tell us about him?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, tell us about that and how you see it relating to Trayvon.

CYNTHIA DAGNAL-MYRON: Well, first of all, she didn’t talk about it overtly in class. But we knew why she was so absolutely insistent on our learning, on our excelling in classes. She wanted—she loved excellence. She demanded excellence of us, because she really wanted us to act on behalf of her son, and so she was extremely, extremely adamant that we learn and that we do our very, very best.

How this is connected is that we have—again, we have a young man, a beautiful young man, with an almost cherubic Cosby kid face. He’s totally against the stereotype that most people have about young black males. Very articulate parents, who are also determined, just as Mamie was, to make sure that this case is not forgotten, that the investigation is done, and that justice is also served. And so, I see them as—they’re sort of—they’re very much like Mamie was. They are absolutely determined to make sure that everything is done. And I think that that’s the parallel that I see.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the death of Emmett Till and the public outrage and the mass outpouring that occurred after his death is often credited as being sort of the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Your thoughts that here we are, more than half-a-century later, and supposedly all the progress that has been made in race relations in the country, and yet these incidents like the one with Trayvon Martin, like the one we reported about of the marine veteran in Westchester County, continue to happen? And you made the distinction in some of your writings about the — "walking while black" is also very distinct for what happens to African-American men versus African-American women. I’m wondering if you could talk about both of those things.

CYNTHIA DAGNAL-MYRON: I think "walking while black" for men, they’re more in fear of being killed. We, as women, are disrespected. And I think I wrote about that in my article. I was taken for—if I was standing on the street at a certain—at night, or even sometimes in the daytime, if I’m standing alone, I was immediately—there was an assumption that I was a prostitute sort of plying my trade, and I was approached very disrespectfully by white men, mostly. African-American men, as I’ve said, are more in fear for their lives. I was just insulted constantly. And it’s something that’s in the back of your mind all the time. You’re a little bit nervous about how you’re being perceived, so you’re always trying to behave—you’re always trying to be better than or even trying to be—as Mamie told us, you’re going to have to be superior. You’re going to have to do so much better than anybody else would have to do, because people immediately expect you to be—they have a stereotype of you, and you’re going to have to defy that. And you have that feeling all of the time. And that’s for black men and black women.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this question of the progress made versus the progress not made?

CYNTHIA DAGNAL-MYRON: I don’t feel as though—I mean, I live with this every day, and I think a lot of people forget this. I don’t know how much progress has been made. We look—every now and then we see someone who makes it. We have Obama. We have these—we have things like that. But your everyday life, your day-to-day life, if you’re an African-American woman or man, you still feel the things that my parents felt. You’re still nervous about the things that my parents were nervous about. You’re still mistaken—or, you’re still treated the way that my parents were afraid that I would be treated. It’s just an everyday thing for me. So, for those who think that it’s over, they’re not walking in our shoes. We know what goes on every day. We feel this every day.

AMY GOODMAN: In February 2000, we broadcast Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till. She reflected on the painful moment when she learned about her son’s murder.

MAMIE TILL MOBLEY: When we knew that Emmett was dead, our first action—we couldn’t take time to cry. As I announced to the family what was happening, of course there were screams. People were hitting the floor, and the hysteria was setting in. I remember standing, announcing that "We don’t have time to cry now, we’ve got to do something. I don’t know what to do, and you’ve got to help me come to make some decisions."

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mamie Till Mobley. Your final thoughts on this, Cynthia Dagnal-Myron?

CYNTHIA DAGNAL-MYRON: First of all, my parents also took me to the South—sorry, my parents also took me to the South every summer so that I would witness how they had grown up, would drink from colored fountains and not be able to go into movie theaters or to have to go in the back doors of restaurants. And the fact that we are still talking about these things now, the fact that we are still having the experiences that we’re having, when I listen to Mamie, what she was saying just now, and I realize that this has happened again, now, after all this time, I don’t know what to say. I’m outraged, and I’m sad.

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