Oprah, We Need Clarification

Published: September 6, 2013

By Jim Lichtman
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Oprah Winfrey hit a racial hot-button recently when she compared the death of Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till. “Trayvon Martin parallel to Emmett Till, let me just tell you. In my mind, same thing.”

Winfrey is referring to the 1955 Mississippi case where a 14-year-old black teen was brutally tortured and murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman. His killers were acquitted.

My first reaction on hearing her assessment: “Are they really the same?” I kept waiting for Oprah to offer specifics but nothing. This was surprising because she is generally very articulate when it comes to clarifying her points of view. As we’ve seen on countless occasions, Oprah’s wheelhouse is digging for the truth in an interview. She asks questions, compares and contrasts statements made by those she interviews in an effort to find out what they meant. In this case, however, reporter Chris Witherspoon didn’t dig and Oprah didn’t offer any additional information to explain her conclusion.

Winfrey is a woman who grew up in Mississippi, has millions of followers. Her credibility is rock-solid. And yet, when it comes to this particular opinion, Winfrey may have been a little hasty.

Emmett Louis Till was a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago, Illinois who came to Money, Mississippi to visit relatives. Sometime during his visit, Till spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant who owned and operated a small grocery store in the area with her husband Roy. It was alleged that Till either “wolf-whistled” or grabbed Bryant around the waist and asked for a date. A few nights later, Bryant’s husband Roy along with his half-brother J.W. Milam showed up at Till’s great-uncle’s house, kidnapped the teen, then took him to a barn where they beat him, gouged out one of his eyes, and shot him in the head before dumping his body in a river.

When Till’s body was recovered and returned to Chicago, his mother insisted on a public funeral with an open casket to show the brutality of the crime. As the outrage spread through newspaper accounts, Bryant and Milam were arrested, tried and acquitted, in part, due to a lack of positive identification of Till’s body. Free from the prospect of a retrial (double-jeopardy), both Bryant and Milam later confessed to murdering the boy.

Trayvon Benjamin Martin was a 17-year-old African-American from Miami Gardens, Florida who traveled with his father to Sanford to visit his father’s fiancé.

According to his statement to police, shortly after 7 pm on February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman was driving to the grocery store when he spotted Trayvon Martin walking through his neighborhood. While Zimmerman was not on duty that night as a neighborhood watch captain, numerous break-ins had occurred and Zimmerman thought it suspicious that someone he did not recognize was walking behind the town homes instead on the street or sidewalk.

Zimmerman contacted Sanford police. During that call, Zimmerman said, “He’s running.” When Zimmerman was asked by the dispatcher if he was following the suspicious individual, Zimmerman said, “yeah.” The dispatcher replied, “We don’t need you to do that.”

Sometime after ending his call, a violent struggle between Zimmerman and Martin took place. Screams of help and a gunshot were reported by neighbors. However, the question of who was calling for help, Zimmerman or Martin, remained in dispute. When police arrived, Zimmerman was handcuffed and brought to a police station where he was photographed and questioned for approximately five hours. At that point, Police Chief Bill Lee released Zimmerman citing that there was not enough evidence to arrest him.

Reaction to the case brought massive media attention, and after Zimmerman appeared on a television interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey filed a formal notice that she intended to use the interview as evidence against Zimmerman.

On July 13, Zimmerman was found not guilty of all charges based, in part, on Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law which gives an individual the right to defend themselves with deadly force if they believe their life is in jeopardy.

However, there is another, ethical issue that troubles me.

The media is a form of public trust. In the past, Oprah has inspired credibility and trust by offering fair and accurate information even on controversial topics. Whenever individuals with a strong media presence offer opinions, they need to understand the responsibility they carry in offering those opinions. Millions of people listen to Oprah Winfrey, and most of those millions – including me – believe what she says. In fact, in the same interview where she compares Till to Martin, Winfrey says, “What I try to do every day is try to allow the truth to speak through me.”

That’s a powerful statement, one that could easily be interpreted to mean that whatever she says is the truth.  In my reading, however, the facts simply don’t make a compelling case for comparing Till to Martin beyond a few obvious similarities.

Yes, both Till and Martin were black teens visiting from out of town. Both were confronted by white men with shocking and avoidable consequences.

However, based on what we know, Bryant and Milam, two white men, premeditated the torture and murder of Emmett Till. Based on the Zimmerman post trial juror interviews, there was no evidence supporting the fact that Zimmerman, a Hispanic, premeditated the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Further, 57 years ago, juries and judges were a lot more disposed to prejudicial bias. Today, with a large media presence observing and analyzing every detail of a trial that receives the kind of national attention the Zimmerman trial received, evidence usually trumps bias.

Were both acts triggered by racial hatred? Certainly the first was, but in the Zimmerman case there is no clear answer. Based on Zimmerman’s cell phone conversation with police, and the fact that he left his car to follow Martin, Zimmerman clearly ‘targeted’ the teen. But was that targeting race-related? We don’t know.

These are just some of the questions that Winfrey could have explored in her comparison. Unfortunately, we are left on our own to speculate on precisely what she meant.

I’m not saying Oprah is wrong. I’m just asking her to clarify how she reached her conclusion regarding two, highly-charged, race-related controversies.

What is strikingly clear is that in spite of 57 years of civil rights reform, racism continues to be a very real obstacle to growth in this country. Until we learn to recognize and accept each other – black, white, Muslim, gay, transgender – we will continue to suffer.

It’s time for us to grow beyond our prejudices, become citizens of humanity, and live out of what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”



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