Remembering Emmett Till

I was ten when fourteen year old Emmett Till was killed in Money, Mississippi. Somehow I recall seeing the ghastly photos of his battered body in Life magazine. He was a kid not much older than I, and his death made it seem like a dangerous world.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/02/20/us/emmett-till-murder-legacy.html?emc=edit_th_190222&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=519478480222

Black people and white people choose to remember history differently. Some of us choose not to remember history at all.

I found this interactive piece oddly moving. Fewer than 100 people live in Money now. The store where Emmett went to buy candy and wound up dead is collapsing in decay. Two white rednecks who lived in Money in 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, thought Till had crossed racial lines with the white woman behind the counter, Carolyn Bryant Donham. She later recanted parts of her story. The two men were acquitted in a show trial. There is not any doubt that they brutally killed the fourteen year old black boy. The men are both now dead. Emmett Till never got to grow up.

At the time, black families made sure their children knew about Emmett’s fate. White families apparently did not.

“Willie Williams and Donna Spell grew up about eight miles from each other in the Delta. They are 10 years apart in age. He learned about Emmett Till as a child. She learned about him as an adult. Mr. Williams is black. Ms. Spell is white.

Mr. Williams said his parents told him about Emmett’s story “as a way of being careful.” Ms. Spell said Emmett’s horrific death was not a story “my parents would have told their children.”

We surely tell different stories even today.

Just curious: if you are “of a certain age” were you aware of Emmett Till’s murder? Did you see the Life magazine piece? Did it make a difference, later, in the way you viewed civil rights? And if  you don’t mind saying, did you view the murder of Emmett Till through white or non-white eyes?

4 thoughts on “Remembering Emmett Till

  1. I don’t remember Emmett Till nor did I see photos in Life. I did, however, experience the civil rights movement in NY. I grew up in a lower middle class immigrant neighborhood on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. The local Public HS was a hotbed of trouble. White kids could not go there. I was fortunate, getting a scholarship to a private HS that was diverse. Everyone else in my grammar school class, even the very poor, found a place in a private or faith based HS. Ten years later, they closed the local HS for 2 years and re-opened it, and my younger siblings went there.

    My Dad was an Emergency Service Police Officer in the precinct in nearby Brooklyn. For several years, he was in the middle of riots in the streets, people setting fires to cars etc, and violent protests. I read most of Martin Luther Kings books, starting when I was 12. I believed in his vision. When he was killed, they closed all schools in NY and cancelled all activities, due to the potential violence.

    I also had the experience of segregation – not in NY but during a camping trip to the south in 1966. I was the navigator and we arrived at a camp that was for “Colored people only.” Also saw signs for separate bathrooms in restaurants. It was the shocking reality of the time.

  2. for Katie: Your family’s experience of that era is really interesting. I remember Asbury Park, NJ, having a “colored beach”. We didn’t seem to be fully aware of the implications of that at the time — it was just what the beach was called. And that’s the only place at that part of the Jersey shore where families of color could swim. We’ve come a long way in some ways, and in other aspects — like Trump stoking racism at the U.S. Mexico border — not so far at all.

  3. I remember the Emmett Till case very well, especially because of my mother. She told me the story about Till’s mother wanting the casket to be open and she made sure I saw the pictures in Life magazine. Of course, I had heard it on the news, etc. I was 15 in August of 1955 and about to enter my junior year of high school. My mother was ahead of her time and I thank her for teaching me the values about race that I hold today. I was one of two of my school delegates at the end of my junior year to the annual conference of Christians and Jews held in Pawling, NY. The other school delegate (male) and I became good friends with two other delegates from schools in NYC. – one male, one female. The male was black. At any rate, later that fall, we had a get together – the four of us – at my house. One of our neighbors made a negative comment to my mother about the “Negro kid.” Without skipping a beat my mother said, “So what, we’re all Americans.” The neighbor shut up. So, I can’t think of Emmett Till without thinking of my mother who was horrified about what had happened to him and made sure I was aware of the problem of racial bigotry in our country. It made a big impression on me.

  4. for Ada: Kudos for your mother — indeed a woman ahead of her time. She was a great role model for you, as you have been for your daughter and daughters in law and granddaughters.

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