According to the Tuskegee Institute, 4,742 people -- more than 72 percent of them black -- were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1964, the year Congress finally drove a stake through Jim Crow's heart.
Now, 50 years later, America has again witnessed a new kind of lynch mob, its brand of vigilantism made all the more tragically ironic by its cynical claim to represent justice and civil rights.
Of all the high-profile guests at 18-year-old Michael Brown's funeral in Missouri this week, none was more significant and symbolic than the cousin of Emmett Till. You may not be familiar with that name, but rest assured that people who know and care about long and often-bloody struggle for racial equality do -- which is why the attempt to draw a parallel between Till and Brown is so unfortunate and dangerous.
Till was an African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 when he was just 14 after supposedly flirting with a white woman. A Chicago resident, Till was visiting relatives when he spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, who owned a small grocery store there. Several nights later, Bryant's husband and half-brother went to Till's great-uncle's house, too him into a barn then beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him in the head and throwing his body in the Tallahatchie Rive.
Three days later, Till's body was discovered and returned to Chicago, where his mother insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of what had been done to her son. The incident shocked much of the public and galvanized the civil-rights movement.
But did Brown's death at the hands of Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson really make him worthy to take a place of honor among Till and other genuine civil-rights martyrs? Attorney General Eric Holder questioned the credibility and integrity of local officials by ordering federal autopsy and by saying that he "personally understood (the) mistrust" many blacks feel toward police. Three White house representatives attended the funeral, along with entertainers, celebrities and civil-rights leaders like local NAACP President Saharra Bledsoe. Journalists scoured Wilson's past for any hint of racism; some reported where he lived.
The implication was unmistakable: Only time separates Brown from Till, Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney and King. And if he is an innocent victim of racism, Wilson is guilty and must be punished.
No justice, no peace.
The problem, of course, is that Wilson has not even been arrested, much less tried or convicted. Far from proving that modern-day St. Louis is no different than the deep South in the 1950s and '60s, when federal agents had to seek justice when KKK-member local officials refused, the delay may in fact have something to do with actual evidence, or lack of it. Although some witnesses have indeed suggested that Wilson's shooting of Brown was unnecessary and unjustified, others have said just the opposite.
And there seems to be little dispute that Brown precipitated the confrontation that left Wilson injured and him dead -- or that the man remembered by relatives as a "gentle soul" robbed a convenience store and roughed up the clerk not long before his death.
None of that exonerates Wilson, of course -- but neither does it deify Brown.
Perhaps, one day, a real trial and real evidence will justify mentioning Michael Brown and Emmett Till in the same sentence, with the same reverence. True justice demands doing everything possible to learn the truth -- and the courage to accept it. But that day is not yet here, and those who pretend otherwise only undermine the nobility of the very struggle they claim to value and represent. What happens if Wilson is acquitted?
No wonder America is at the end of its rope, with blacks and whites telling the Pew Research Center this week that race relations have gotten worse since 2009. Seventy percent of blacks also believe police do a poor job of treating minorities equally compared to 25 percent of whites.
Perhaps, as Holder suggested, that's still too often a reflection of life in America. Or maybe they're just watching too much TV news.