Teen’s Death Still a Mystery

Kendrick was a celebrated athlete (courtesy of Twitter)

The life of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson of Valdosta, Georgia came to a tragic and mysterious end on January 11th.

According to official reports—which Kendrick’s family and a large number of supporters believe to be inaccurate or false—the three-sport athlete was in the gymnasium, reached for a shoe and accidentally fell into a rolled-up exercise mat that was standing upright nearby.

By the time Kendrick was found, it was too late. He had died of suffocation and, with all the blood rushing to his head, his face was nearly unrecognizable.

Here is a picture that leaked to family members just after the young man’s death and has since gone viral on the Internet. I warn you, though. It’s kind of gross.

Kendrick before and after (courtesy of Tumblr)

Actually, it’s this very picture—as well as some nagging questions—that have people so up in arms over Kendrick’s death and the perceived mishandling of his case by investigators. Despite there being no bruises or other clear signs of foul play on the body, family members still feel their loved one was murdered. And they point to Kendrick’s bloated, damaged face as evidence of this being at least possible.

“It’s indescribable,” father Kenneth Johnson said of his dead son. “You don’t expect to see your child lying down like that. As handsome as my son was, the day you see him like that is crazy.”

When asked about the official cause of death—accidental suffocation—Kenneth said only this: “People are not buying it.”

Those same people have been rallying in the streets of Valdosta since April in protest of Kendrick’s death and the investigation—or lack thereof—by the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office. And to be perfectly honest, they have good reasons for being upset.

Aside from the suspicious nature of Kendrick’s death, a host of other issues, mistakes and unusual behaviors have only added to the mystery. For instance, both the family and the coroner believe Kendrick’s body was moved during the investigation, which anyone who watches CSI can tell you is a forensic “no-no.” Many also believe that Sheriff Chris Prine was too quick to rule out foul play, doing so less than a day after the student’s body was found.

Unfortunately, that’s not all.

Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson also found it disturbing that he was contacted six hours after Kendrick’s body was discovered; Georgia law requires that the coroner be notified immediately. And protesters continue to claim that the investigation only began once the public became outraged. Prior to that—and perhaps because Kendrick was black—the authorities appeared to do very little in trying to solve his case, even mishandling evidence on numerous occasions.

Whether or not the truth finally comes out—or already has (if this was indeed an accident)—remains to be seen. However, the puzzling case of Kendrick Johnson reminded many “old timers” of another racially motivated killing: the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.

Young Emmett Till (courtesy of Biography)

Till was a stocky young man who some claimed looked like an adult, but who also behaved as any relatively happy teenager would. The only problem for Emmett was his occasional inability to recognize his own limitations, which could be dangerous for blacks in the South at that time.

Sadly, it proved deadly for Emmett.

One August afternoon in Money, Mississippi, Till and his cousin, Curtis Jones, skipped church and went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy. Although white-owned, the store catered primarily to sharecroppers and their families. And on this particular day, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant—the wife of owner Roy—was working the counter.

Till and his cousin met up with some local boys and during their conversation, Till produced a picture of his integrated school class in Chicago. One by one he pointed to his classmates—even the white ones—and claimed they were all his friends.

Even the white girls.

At this point—and likely in disbelief—the boys demanded proof and dared Till to go and speak with Carolyn Bryant. He reluctantly agreed and entered the store.

I should probably mention that Till contracted polio as a child and developed a persistent stutter, one he would later alleviate—at least temporarily—by whistling. Now back to the story.

Accounts of what happened in the store vary, but most claim that Till whistled at Bryant. It could have been that he was asking for bubble gum—the whistling being used to overcome his issues with the letter “b”—but no one knows for sure. Some even say he grabbed Bryant’s hand, asked for a date  and said “bye baby” on his way out. Or maybe even grabbed the white woman around the waist.

What happened here, in actuality, is irrelevant. It is what happened next that makes this such a tragic and poignant tale.

When Roy Bryant heard about Till’s altercation with his wife, he flipped and immediately started searching for him. He questioned some of the boys who were seen with Till at the store and even snatched a young black boy from the street. Bryant released him once he learned the “n–ger who did the talking” was from Chicago.

Bryant also knew where to find him. Till was staying at the home of a local man, Mose Wright, with some relatives. Early the next morning, Bryant, his half-brother J.W. Milam and an unidentified black man paid Wright a visit.

Armed with pistols and flashlights, the men sneaked into Wright’s house, questioned him about the boy and eventually found till in bed with one of his cousins. They asked the boy if his name was Till and, for some reason, he said yes. The men forced Till to dress quietly—at gunpoint, I assume—and told Wright they would kill him if he reported any of this. Then they rushed out, tossed Till in the back of their pickup truck and sped away.

Bryant drove to a barn in the nearby town of Drew, dragged Till out of the truck and pistol-whipped him mercilessly. Then it was back in the truck, this time with a tarp thrown over him.

What happened next is also kind of hazy. Rumor has it that Bryant drove Till all over town and to several different locations. At each, he and his boys would extract Till from the truck, beat him up again and then move on to the next stop. One such stop was Milam’s shed and, according to some, that is where Till was finally shot and killed. However, it could have also occurred near the Tallahatchie River.

The most horrifying accounts have Bryant returning to his store—the back of his truck pooling with blood—and either claiming that he killed a deer or actually showing Till’s body to people and saying something like “that’s what happens to smart n–ggers.”

Ignorant bastard. Sadly, it gets even worse.

Eventually, Bryant and Milam decided the time had come to dispose of the body. They took Till and a 70-pound fan they got from a cotton gin to the Tallahatchie River, stripped him naked—except for a silver ring—used barbed wire to attach the fan to his neck and tossed him into the water.

Bryant and Milam in court in 1955 (courtesy of Time Inc.)

Although Mose Wright refused to tell police about what happened—still afraid Bryant would kill him if he did—he did tell Curtis Jones, Till’s cousin. Jones notified the authorities, who questioned Bryant and Milam and arrested them both for kidnapping.

They both claimed Till was alive the last time they saw him, though.

Three days later, the bloated and disfigured body of Emmett Till was discovered by some boys fishing in the Tallahatchie. What a gruesome discovery that must have been! At any rate, it was obvious from Till’s beaten, broken and, in the case of much of his head, missing body that he had been murdered.

The barbed wire and fan blade were a dead giveaway, too.

Bryant and Milam were eventually acquitted of all kidnapping charges and had the nerve to share “the true story” with Look magazine a year later (protected against double jeopardy, of course). Milam confessed to shooting Till, but didn’t find anything wrong with it. Fortunately, the public did and both men went bankrupt once blacks stopped visiting their businesses.

In both of these cases—Emmett Till in 1955 and Kendrick Johnson in 2013—the obvious connections are race and discrimination, but a simpler connection exists: the gruesome state of each victim’s head and face area following their murder or allegedly accidental death.

Here is Emmett Till—again, this is pretty gross.

Emmett after his death (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Frightening.

For the Johnson family’s sake, I certainly hope they get some resolution soon and can come to terms with their terrible loss. It will never be easy—and their questions may still go unanswered—but hope is what’s most important. And faith, I suppose.

As for poor Emmett Till, I really don’t know what to say. He got a hugely raw deal and the only semi-positive thing to draw from his story is the eventual financial ruin of his killers. That and the fact they both died of cancer later.

1955 was a different time, to be sure. And as much as I would like to believe something like this could never happen in modern America—where race separates us less than it did back then—the sad truth is that it does and likely will for a long time to come.

Remember this, though: the change begins with YOU. So I guess there’s hope after all, huh?

Posted on May 11, 2013, in Family, Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It definitely seems that there are many unanswered questions and they should investigate fully to be as clear as possible as to the cause of death. Leave no stone unturned and be as open as they can be during the investigation. That said, I am disturbed by Al Sharpton getting involved in this. He was propelled into the national spot-light getting justice for Tawana Brawley in case that’s dubious nature is still being debated and ruined the lives of 3 men whom most likely had no real connection to the case, if a real case actually existed.

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