Remembering Emmett Till
Today is September 5, and I was thinking that the rhyme goes, Remember, remember, the fifth of September… But no, it’s actually the fifth of November. Apparently, the poem celebrates the foiling of a plot to blow up England’s House of Parliament in 1605, and in remembrance, November 5 is annually observed in the United Kingdom.
I think there’s another day, closer to home, that we should take care to remember.
On August 28, 1955, a 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago named Emmett Till was abducted at gunpoint from his great-uncle’s house in Money, Mississippi. He was beaten, tortured, and shot, and the body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around the neck with barbed wire. When it was recovered from the river three days later, the body was unrecognizable: tongue choked out of his mouth, an eyeball dislodged from the socket, missing teeth, a broken nose, a severed ear. Undoubtedly some, if not all, of these injuries were inflicted pre-mortem. Emmett’s great-uncle identified him by a silver ring that had belonged to Emmett’s late father.
All this because a black boy looked at, probably spoke to, possibly whistled at, maybe even breathed on, a white woman.
There are differing accounts as to what events actually transpired. Perhaps he greeted her, or asked for candy. Perhaps he did whistle, and it was misinterpreted; his mother stated that she’d taught him to whistle softly to himself before pronouncing words in order to help alleviate his stutter. The white woman, 21-year-old shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant, testified before a judge that Emmett asked her for a date, grabbed her hand and then her waist, and told her not to worry, that he had been with white women before. Years later, in an interview with author Timothy Tyson in 2007, she revealed none of that happened.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” — Carolyn Bryant, 2007
Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half-brother J. W. Milam stood trial for the murder, and they were acquitted by an all-white jury that deliberated for less than an hour — despite evidentiary testimonies. Once double jeopardy had attached, they confessed.
This is the ugly, unrestrained history of racism in this country. This is the legacy associated with Emmett Till — a 14-year-old boy, an innocent child, who should never have even been exposed to anything like this — and especially not for the sole reason that his skin was not white.
I didn’t learn about Emmett Till until I was in college. My Artists & Their Regions class studied the Mississippi Delta that semester, so we spent Spring Break 2017 there, where we visited, among other cities and other historical and cultural sites, the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center (E.T.H.I.C.) in Glendora. There, every grotesque, disturbing detail was recounted for us — and we needed to know.
Everyone needs to know, and we need to remember.
My August 28 this year came and went without any fanfare. I didn’t realize the significance of the day, and I didn’t think about it in terms of any historical context.
I should have.
September 11 is coming up, and everyone across the United States will remember the 2001 attacks. But what about the attack of August 28, 1955? At the heart of the history, they’re not all that different: innocent life was lost while terrorism reigned.
I never wondered why Emmett Till’s story wasn’t part of my earlier education. His legacy is one of the darkest and most heartbreaking parts of American history, particularly of the Deep South. I think most academic curricula omit a lot of the uglier and more violent details — whether to protect students or to deny the more horrifying depths of history, I don’t know. I don’t think the why matters.
It’s 2019, and there is still discrimination. There is still hate, and fear, and they still largely rule our society. It’s what lies at the root of campaigns like “Black Lives Matter” and “Make America Great Again.” For many people, it’s still subconscious, planted and nurtured by a history that said, “This is acceptable.”
We need to acknowledge that it is not acceptable, and to do that, we need to be honest about it. Where there is racism, it needs to be spoken about as it is. Emmett Till’s mother held an open casket funeral so the world could see what racial inequality had done to her son. She wanted that moment to be acknowledged so that change could come — even if it had to come at that cost.
Like Mamie Till-Mobley, we need to acknowledge what happened, including the details that we don’t learn in history classes. When it comes to the past, we need to know the entire story, in every detail, in order to have any hope of trying to understand. What’s more, we need to remember it. We must remember the past if we’re to have any hope of preventing it repeating itself.