It was sixty-six years ago today that a 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered for the crime of being Black in a town called Money, Mississippi. You all know the story, but allow me to just quickly refresh your memories …
Emmett was from ‘up north’ in Chicago, but his mother had sent him to Mississippi to spend the final two weeks of summer with his beloved grandfather before returning to school. One day he went into a small store to buy some candy and as the cashier returned his change, his hand accidentally and briefly touched hers. That, my friends, was all it took to get this young man killed.
By the time the story had been spread and embellished on, it was said that he caressed the clerk … a woman much older than Emmett who he would likely have seen as being the age of his own mother … had wolf-whistled and flirted with her. While none of these are crimes, more importantly, he did none of the above as witnesses would later recall. But this was Mississippi in the 1950s, the Jim Crow era.
Long story short, his assailants—the white woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, John Milam—dragged young Emmett from his grandfather’s home and made him carry a 75-pound cotton gin fan to the bank of the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to take off his clothes. The two men then beat him nearly to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head and then threw his body, tied to the cotton gin fan with barbed wire, into the river.
In September a trial was held for the two murderers and on September 23, the all-white, all-male jury deliberated 67 minutes before acquitting Bryant and Milam. Jurors later admitted in interviews that although they knew Bryant and Milam were guilty of Till’s murder, they did not think imprisonment or the death penalty were appropriate punishments for white men who had killed a black man. The white woman, Carolyn Bryant, later recanted her testimony.
Why do I rehash this story today? This is one of thousands of tragic stories from that era, but it is one that has received the most attention, one that we can point to and say, “That is who we used to be.” Or … can we? I have fairly recently come to believe that it is still who some of us are today. I don’t think it’s a long stretch of the imagination to think of a similar atrocity happening in 21st Century Mississippi … or Alabama … Louisiana … Texas.
This is why we MUST teach about Emmett Till and the others in our schools today. We must open the eyes of our young people to the past in order to ensure we don’t repeat that sordid past. Just a few weeks ago, before Afghanistan took the spotlight, there was a big brouhaha about teaching ‘Critical Race Theory’ in the schools. There is an element of our society who would have future generations believe that the U.S. was founded only on compassion and altruism, that the nation’s history is all rosy and beautiful. It isn’t.
Every single schoolchild by the age of 12 should be aware of the story of Emmett Till, as well as Thomas Moss, Will Stewart, Calvin McDowell and thousands of others. Don’t recognize those names? Look them up! Some 6,500 Black people were lynched in the United States between 1865 and 1950 – and that’s only the ones we know about. No, this is not the ‘pretty’ part of our history BUT … it IS part of our history, part of what has made this nation what it is today. To hide it, to sweep it under the carpet, is criminal and ultimately will lead us right back to that dirty, dark place of the Jim Crow era. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go back there.