Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till was a 14-year-old Black Chicago teen who left his home for a two-week summer vacation with his aunt and uncle in Mississippi. He returned home as a lynch victim in a sealed box that demanded “DO NOT OPEN.”
The tragic story of Emmett’s journey from Chicago to Mississippi and back is a poignant tale that resonates today. We are reminded of modern day Emmetts whose short lives and senseless deaths in some way sadly represent an ongoing cycle.
Emmett Till’s Story
Four days after arriving in MS, Till naively whistled at a 21-year-old white woman, Carolyn Bryant, the storekeeper of Bryant’s Grocery store. It was a mistake he would pay for with his life.
On August 28, 1955, Emmett was abducted at 2:30 a.m. from the home of his great uncle and aunt. He was carried off to a shed in the back of the home of J. W. Milam, the 36-year-old half-brother of 24-year-old Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband.
Together, these two men brutally lynched Emmett for his “crime” and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.
Miraculously, Till’s feet surfaced and he was pulled out of the river, at this point, a badly battered, almost-unrecognizable body. He had been shot in the head, which had been partially blown off. He had only a few teeth left, and a swollen tongue grotesquely protruded out of his mouth.
It was ”the symbol of the true ugliness of American racism staring us right in the eye” (Dr. Hudson-Weems). His mother, Mamie, shared this with the world at an open-casket wake and funeral. Tens of thousands from all over came to witness the results of the atrocity.
Meanwhile, down south, an all-white, all-male jury for the infamous five-day lynch trial in Sumner, Mississippi handed down a “Not Guilty” verdict to his murderers.
The catalyst of the modern civil rights movement
Despite the trial, Emmett was never to be forgotten. He became the catalyst of the modern civil rights movement, as his gruesome death shocked many Americans into seeing racism for what it really was.
Three months later, Rosa Parks, the Mother of the Movement, refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955. She confessed that Emmett motivated her to hold her ground. His brutal death, then, set the stage for the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956—and the grassroots, non-violent protests that would shape the success of the civil rights movement for the next decade. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Father of the Movement, further asserts that “pressed in the minds of the Alabamans was the image of Emmett Till,” the child of the movement.
Emmett is Chicago, its history and its future. He was born, raised, and brought back to Chicago to be memorialized and buried. A street on the south side and a public school were both named after him.
In many ways, the civil rights movement is not over. The memory of Emmett Till must stand as a constant reminder of the urgency of eradicating racial dominance and injustices on all fronts as we forge our way toward ultimate freedom.
Emmett Till and today’s civil rights movement
The “Emmett Till continuum” still plagues Chicago, as well as cities throughout the world. While we no longer see Jim Crow laws or shockingly battered victims of lynchings, racism is still a disease that we have failed to eradicate.
Too often, the crimes are due to some sort of discrimination, which must be addressed if the growing reports of victimization, insensitivity, and malice are to cease. The following quotation comes from the first full-length study of Till as catalyst of the civil rights movement:
“Emmett Louis Till lived and died. His murder and trial were a mockery of the value of African American life. This incident exemplified racial atrocities in modern history. As the people were keenly cognizant of this case then, through mass media, so should they be today through recorded history. Indeed, it so pressed upon the minds of Americans then that it ultimately exploded into the Civil Rights Movement. It is crucial for the civil rights struggles of today, yesterday, and tomorrow that the importance of Emmett Till to the Modern Civil Rights Movement be written, understood for its merit, and become a focal point for positive, consciousness-raising thought and action for all American citizens [and people worldwide] who love the ideas of trust, truth, integrity, and justice.” (Hudson-Weems, Emmett Till, p. 61, 1994; from 1988 Ford Doctoral Dissertation—U of Iowa)
While this tragic history can never be forgotten, there is the possibility of remorse via moral revulsion for one’s racist acts, atonement as accountability for the wrongdoings and victimization of the oppressed, and redemption received by doing good. Together, these actions can help to close the race divide, with the emergence of the final step – forgiveness.
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