Teach the tale of Emmitt Till

Aug 27, 2015 by

emmett till photo: Emmett Till ph_emmett-till2005-1st.jpg

By Jamie Gass –

Oh, what sorrow,

Pity, pain,

That tears and blood

Should mix like rain

In Mississippi!

And terror, fetid hot,

Yet clammy cold

Remain.”

— “Mississippi — 1955” (To the Memory of Emmett Till), Langston Hughes

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year old black boy from Chicago who was killed by two white Mississippians for whistling in the presence of a white woman. “The news of Emmett’s death caused many people to participate in the cry for justice and equal rights, including myself,” wrote Rosa Parks, the first lady of civil rights.

The savagery of Emmett’s executioners, ensuing perversion of criminal justice, and the poised bravery his mother displayed are lessons that all American schoolchildren should know. But national data tell us that students’ knowledge of U.S. history is perilously feeble and largely unchanged since 1998.

Emmett’s mother, Mamie, was born in Mississippi in 1921. When she was two her parents moved to Chicago. There, Mamie excelled in school, worked, got married, and in 1941 gave birth to her only child, Emmett. His father died when he was four, but he was a confident, playful little kid whose family always described as being courageous beyond his years. Childhood polio left young Emmett with a stutter.

In late August 1955, a month after his 14th birthday and 15 months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mamie reluctantly allowed Emmett to visit family in Mississippi. In her powerful memoir, Death of Innocence, she recalls firmly warning Emmett before he left about the dangers of Jim Crowism: “white people down South could be very mean to blacks, even to black kids. Don’t start up any conversations with white people.”

While staying with Mamie’s sharecropping uncle, Emmett and his cousins went to Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, to buy some candy. Carolyn Bryant, the 21-year-old white wife of the store’s owner, was keeping shop.

Even today the details remain unclear. Carolyn claimed 14-year old Emmett made a suggestive comment towards her, after which she went to her car to get her gun. Then, he whistled at her. According to some, Emmett often whistled to start over after stuttering.

Under Jim Crow, a whistle could be lethal.

On Aug. 28, 1955, around 2:30 a.m., Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Emmett Till at gunpoint, taking him to a local barn. There, they took turns pistol-whipping him and gouged out an eye before stripping him, using barbed wire to bind him to a 70-pound cotton gin fan, shooting him through the head, and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.

Source: Gass: Teach the tale of Emmitt Till – Opinion – MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, MA – Framingham, MA

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