July 24, 2015
I grew up on the Southside of Chicago, right off 71st Street. Taking the journey down this iconic city’s thoroughfare, I’d notice a brown street sign situated slightly below the one labeled “71st Street:” Emmett Till Road.
As a youngster, I always wondered who Emmett Till was, and would ask my great-grandfather, our family historian, about his significance. He told me Till was a young boy who grew up in our neighborhood who was killed in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Till’s experience impacted my great-grandfather. He often pointed to it as an example of why Black people had limited protection in his home state of Mississippi. Like many African Americans in the south in the early part of the 20th century, my great-grandparents moved to Chicago during the Great Migration for better opportunities for themselves and their children.
While my great-grandfather would intersperse his cautionary tales with nostalgic musings of growing up in the south, his wife had a very different perspective on growing up girl in Mississippi. She passed away in 2007 and never returned home; she closed that chapter of her life for over seventy years. I did not know much about her childhood, but I do know that she felt moving to Chicago was one of the best decisions she ever made. I would not fully understand the pain surrounding her experience with “The Magnolia State” until a few years later, when I learned a bit more about Emmett Till and his legacy.
I remember this day vividly, partially because it served as a catalyst for my love for African-American history, but mostly because the image of Till’s mutilated body became permanently seared in my memory. I was in my sixth grade science class. My teacher, Ms. Lake, notoriously known for her larger-than-life personality and commitment to the intellectual and social education of her students, decided she would use her class to show us a documentary about the history of African Americans in the United States. A segment of this documentary focused on the story of Emmett Till, and how his death and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers led to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.
Unapologetically, the film displayed an image of Emmett Till’s mother, her faced gripped in grief, looking over the body of her fourteen-year-old son. The class let out a collective gasp. The film had done what countless teachers attempt to do on a daily basis: capture the undivided attention of their students.
I couldn’t shake the image from my head. I was incensed and terrified at the same time. I couldn’t sleep alone for days. Emmett’s face showed up in my dreams for weeks after that. I had to know more about him and the movement that he started. This young man and his story set me on fire.
In eighth grade, when my class read “A Lesson Before Dying,” I used Till’s narrative as a lens to examine race relations in the United States during the Jim Crow Era. By that time, I’d transitioned from being afraid of Till’s image to being a warrior for his narrative. His mother, Mrs. Mamie Till-Mobley, demanded that Emmett have an open-casket funeral so that everyone could see what happened to her son. I rationalized to myself if this woman was strong and brave enough to take on that injustice head-on, the least I could do was honor her by bearing witness.
July 25th marks Till’s 74th birthday; He was murdered in 1955 and his killers were allowed to walk away free men (despite later confessing to the crime). Till’s narrative parallels what we’ve seen happen countless times over the last few years. There are countless mothers who have experienced Mamie Till-Mobley’s grief, sixty years after Emmett was taken from her. Despite all that we’ve accomplished as a nation, we still have a long way to go before the myth of the “American Dream” is accessible for all of our nation’s children.