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