On August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago supposedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store. The murder of a 14-year old black boy Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi in August 1955 sparked the Civil Rights movement, but the crime won’t sound clarion calls for a nation to wake up to if not for the above photo. Till’s mutilated corpse circulated around the country mainly because of John Johnson who published the gruesome photographs in Jet magazine, a predominately African American publication. The photo drew intense public reaction.
Till didn't understand or knew that he had broken an unwritten law of the Jim Crow South until three days later, when two white men dragged him from his bed in the dead of night, beat him brutally and then shot him in the head. That night the door to his grandfather’s house was thrown open, and Emmett was taken by the mob of at least six white men, forced into a truck and driven away, never again to be seen alive. Till’s body was found swollen and disfigured in the Tallahatchie river three days after his abduction and only identified by his ring.
Till’s body was sent back to Chicago, where his mother insisted on leaving the casket open for the funeral and on having people take photographs because she wanted people to see how badly Till’s body had been disfigured—she has famously been quoted as saying, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Up to 50,000 people viewed the body.
On the day he was buried, two men — the husband of the woman who had been whistled at and his half brother — were indicted of his murder, but the all white male jury from Money (some of whom actually participated in Till’s torture and execution) took only an hour to return ‘not guilty’ verdict. The verdict would have been quicker, remarked the grinning foreman, if the jury hadn’t taken a break for a soft drink on the way to the deliberation room. To add insult to injury, knowing that they would not be retrial, the two accused men sold their stories to LOOK magazine and happily admitted to everything.
Elsewhere in Mississippi at the time things weren’t going terribly well for blacks either. Just before Till was murdered, two activists Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith were shot dead for trying to exercise their rights to vote, and in a shocking testimony to lack of law and order, no one came forward to testify although both murders were committed in broad daylight. The next year, Clyde Kennard, a former army sergeant, tried to enroll at Mississippi South College in Hatiesburg in 1956. He was sent away, but came back to ask again. For this ‘audacity’, university officials — not students, or mere citizens, but university officials — planted stolen liquor and a bag of stolen chicken feed in his car and had him arrested. Kennard died halfway into his seven year sentence.
But times were slowly a-changing: Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954, and three months after the Till murder Rosa Parks would refuse to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Sit-ins and marches would follow, and soon the civil rights movement itself would be in full-swing. It’s been almost sixty-years since the events of that fateful night and I simply cannot find the words to describe this heinous crime that has yet to receive justice.
So I’ll end by sharing these words by Maya Angelou: “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
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