Not everyone is entirely upset with actress Taraji P. Henson. The “Empire” star faced backlash this week after she referenced the case of Emmett Till, a Black teen brutally beaten by several white men in 1955, when addressing the sentencing of her former co-star Jussie Smollett. The actor was sentenced to 150 days behind bars for staging a hate crime against himself and lying to the police.
In a social media post calling for the release of the 39-year-old, Henson argued that despite being “brutally beat and ultimately murdered because of a lie,” none of the men, including Roy Bryant and his half-brother John Williams ever faced any jail time. The actress pointed out that “No one was hurt or killed during Jussie’s ordeal. He has already lost everything, EVERYTHING!”
The 51-year-old faced criticism almost immediately, with many calling her post tone-deaf. Yet, during a recent interview with TMZ, Till’s cousin Deborah Watts, who co-founded the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, shared that she was glad Henson included Till’s case in the discussion.
“And I do truly appreciate Taraji P. Henson sharing her passion and support for him. I mean, anyone in that situation I think would love encouragement and support from their friends,” she told the outlet. “But I also appreciate Ms. Henson connecting in and mentioning Emmett Till’s murder, his lynching, because it is yet unsolved, and we are still fighting for justice after 67 years. His mother fought for justice, opening that casket up for the world to see.”
Watts declined to comment on whether she agreed to the fairness of Smollett’s sentencing, but did agree that Black people in America often tend to be punished to a greater extent than their white counterparts.
“I know that, historically, Black and brown bodies have been punished more severely than others in our country, and so I’m not weighing in on Jussie’s case at this point, but I do think it’s unfortunate that we face more harsher punishment than others,” she said.
Watts continued, “And unfortunately in Emmett Till’s case the perpetrators were held, they were acquitted of his murder, they sold their stories to Look Magazine for about $4,000, and there are others who were responsible for his death as well who were never brought to justice… Carolyn Bryant Donham, who is still alive, has never faced her responsibility.”
The advocate told the outlet that she appreciates Till’s inclusion during the online debate, telling reporters, “It is appropriate. It is important. It is relevant to what’s happening today to many others.”
Last week, Smollett was sentenced to 30 months of federal probation and 150 days in jail. He is behind bars at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. He was also ordered to pay $120,000 in restitution and a $25,000 fine.