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The Story of Emmett Till: An American Ignominy

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THE STORY OF EMMETT TILL: AN AMERICAN IGNOMINY

By Victor Lana

I don’t know if every American knows Emmett Till’s story, but they should. It is such a despicable chapter in our history: one that illuminates the conditions of racism and intolerance. It also clearly defines what is not justice: a jury of one’s “peers” does not always mean that an equitable and honorable verdict is assured.

Emmett Till was a 14 year old resident of Chicago who was sent to visit his family in Mississippi in the summer of 1955. This can be considered a universal rite of passage in America: many children are sent out of the hot city in the summer to visit relatives in the country. Unfortunately, Emmett’s destination was Money, Mississippi, and he did not know the rules of the inequitable game there. When Emmett had the audacity to whistle at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, his fate was sealed.

The events that happened afterwards are an ugly part of America’s history. Emmett was taken from his family’s home (by Bryant’s husband and an other man); he was beaten, mutilated, shot, and strangled. When Emmett’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, it no longer looked like that of a 14 year old but more like a bloated, disfigured alien.

What follows in this story should make any normal person sick. Emmett’s mother Mamie had to see her son in that condition, but then she made the brave choice of having an open coffin for his viewing. This profound and significant decision included a picture of Emmett taped to the coffin for the whole world to see the difference. Pictures were taken of Emmett’s corpse at this time, and this offered a grueling before and after comparison that still resonates today.

Anyone who sees these pictures can judge for him or herself the severity of the crime perpetrated here. After fifty years the impact of the photographs is still reverberating. For in the handsome face of the 14 year old Emmett wearing a straw hat we see confidence, determination, and someone who will have a bright future. In the photo taken in the coffin, there is not even a boy but rather a morphing of what is human. Emmett was so brutally beaten that his face did what he could no longer do: scream in outrage for justice.

Of course, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were acquitted by an all white jury. This distortion of the Constitution is an American ignominy for it derides the core protections and rights afforded to us as citizens. Every American should feel disgraced by this chapter in our history. It should stand as a teachable moment that is discussed and remembered in classrooms and living rooms. Yes, it is as ugly as any story can be, and therein lies the necessity of its being told.

Fifty years have passed since Emmett died and many Americans have changed; however, many have not. Some of that same kind of hatred and intolerance still exists in our society. We are called to action by Emmett’s story to live lives of tolerance and peace. While one can never make sense of such brutality, Emmett’s memory can be honored as much as any soldier who died in battle. For in essence Emmett died for a cause, one that was as noble as any before or since: the right to be, to live, to exist in equity and harmony.

We can recognize this, address it honestly and compassionately, and do something significant each day to make it a reality, for if we do not, then our so called liberties will still suffer and our concept of freedom will never be completely untainted or truly free.

Copyright © Victor Lana 2005

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/VictorLana/ Victor Lana

    I wanted to add this link to the post but something happened. Please visit the site. You can watch the video, see the pictures, and learn much more about Emmett Hill’s story.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1969702

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/VictorLana/ Victor Lana

    The previous should read:

    “more about Emmett Till.” I apologize for the typo.

  • Germaine

    I can not imagine what life must have been like for people of color 50 years ago. I know that there is still, and probably always will be hate and fear and ignorance in this world. I just want to ask all of you that are listening…. do you still think that the person of color is the devil….if you do, you are sadly mistaken. I have never felt hate towards anyone. The burden of hate is too big a load for me to carry around. I can only hope that my ancestors were punished by God first and then forgiven.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/VictorLanasINADARKTIME/ Victor Lana

    Germaine,

    “Hate” seems to be running rampant these days. Look at the reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Instead of humanitarian commentary, we have lots of prejudiced people spewing hate. This is not what America is all about, just some of its sadly obnoxious offspring.

  • Ann Marie

    I don’t know how any of us can live with this – the evidence of the human capacity for evil. Although it is all so well known – throughout human history – that it is almost a cliche – to sit in my comfortable living room and watch this documentary is just heartbreaking. Heartbreaking and disheartening and frightening. It makes me wonder about how we rationalize and turn our backs on the evil in our present day world – and if we don’t turn our backs, how do we live with such horrible realities?

  • alicia

    im so sad it s so sad what happend to him.they should have just shot him so he woudnt have to go through all the pain

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/VictorLana Victor Lana

    I am happy to see this article being read again, especially during Black History Month.

  • STM

    Alicia: “im so sad it s so sad what happend to him.they should have just shot him so he woudnt have to go through all the pain”

    Perhaps they could have quietly suggested that whistling at white women in the Missisippi of that era probably wasn’t a good idea, even for a 14-year-old still “under cosntruction”, and just left it at that.

  • Maggot

    Thats just really wrong and it should never have happened people were so childish

  • monika.

    omg; how cld someone do somehting like that to another human.?

    that is jst sick and wrng.
    childish.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    I am happy to see someone reading this article again. We can see how far that we have come since Mr. Obama is President, but we still have a long way to go.

  • Lisa

    Childish? How about evil, it is inconceivable to me that anyone would think they have the right to do this to another human being, no matter what he did! And then to have the men who did it, not be punished for thier crimes is a great injustice that this country should be ashamed off!

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Thank you for your comment, Lisa. And you’re absolutely right that this act was one of evil. That is why I wrote:

    “It is such a despicable chapter in our history.”

    Now we can only honor Emmett’s memory by fighting against this kind of thing every day.