Today would have been the 72nd birthday of Emmett Louis Till, a young man who died in 1955 at the age of 14, never knowing the impact he would have on history or the reverence his name would command as a martyr for dignity, equality and justice. In that, I equate him with Anne Frank, who also went on to enduring significance long past the end of her short life.
The story of Emmett Till is well known, but it always bears repeating.
Emmett was an African American teen from Chicago who visited his cousins in the Mississippi Delta town of Money during the summer of 1955. One day, he was said to be flirting with and/or whistling at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, whose husband Roy ran a small grocery store. In actuality, Emmett had a speech impediment and he sometimes whistled to avoid stuttering. No matter, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam heard about the incident and in the dead of night, went to Emmett’s great uncle’s house, kidnapped the boy and took him to a barn, where they beat and tortured him, gouged out one of his eyes, then shot him in the head and threw his broken body into the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was discovered three days later.
When it was returned to the A. A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago, his mother Mamie could not recognize him. But with a courage and determination that was to reverberate throughout the world, she insisted that his casket be open so that everyone could see the effect of the hate and violence that permeated the American South. Tens of thousands lined up to view Emmett Till lying in state and thousands more attended his funeral at Roberts Temple of God Church in Christ.
When Bryant and Milam were tried the next month, it took the all-white jury only a little over an hour to come back with a verdict of Not Guilty. One of the jurors commented, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
Once free of legal concerns, the two defendants struck a deal with Look magazine for a couple of thousand dollars each for an interview in which they proudly admitted the murder.
Since then, though, Emmett Till has undergone a well-deserved apotheosis into secular saint of the civil rights movement, an inspiration for poets, playwrights, novelists, journalists and commentators, as well as every equal rights activist who ever marched, and a galvanizing force for passage of several civil rights acts in Congress. His immortal soul will be invoked and he will remain in the pantheon of heroes of the struggle for all time. Meanwhile Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam lived out the rest of their sorry lives as incarnate devils of hatred and intolerance and their memory is one of eternal damnation.
The story of Emmett Till must never be forgotten. It reminds us that long before Oklahoma City and 9/11, this nation tolerated domestic terrorism within its own shores for hundreds of years, through thousands of lynchings and other acts of hate and intimidation.
It reminds us, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from the Birmingham Jail eight years later, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
While I do not in any way equate Till’s martyrdom with the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case, the national trauma that death and trial has provoked reminds us that the struggle isn’t over and the dialogue must not cease.
Perhaps most important, it reminds us that Emmett Till was an innocent, fun-loving boy just entering his teens, whose life was taken from him by malign forces he was too good-hearted to comprehend. And in that, he has all too many brothers and sisters in the grim ledger of crime victims.