Emmett Till

Today is Emmett Till’s birthday. He would have been 76 if he wasn’t brutally murdered in 1955 after just turning 14 years old a month earlier.

I often forget that Emmett Till was the same age as my mother but they lived in two very different worlds. I asked her once if she knew about his murder when she was a kid and she said she didn’t recall hearing much about it but that wasn’t unusual. Naturally, she would learn a lot more about it later.

Last summer I went to all the spots related to Emmett’s death in Mississippi. I went to Money and the Bryant Grocery Store where he supposedly whistled at a white woman, I went to the bridge where they shot him, weighted his body down with a gin fan and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. I went to Sumner and sat in the courthouse where the trial took place; where an all-white, male jury returned a not guilty verdict.

The brick in the photo was, in the words of Medgar Ever’s daughter, Reena, “preserved” from the now crumbled down grocery store. The piece of rust is from the bridge. The business card is from the pharmacist at the drug store across the street from the county court house in Sumner. The pharmacist wanted to make sure I kept it. When he learned my mother was a Freedom Rider the next question out of his mouth was, “What do you think of the Confederate Flag?” I told him, “I think we’re the only country that flies the flag of the loser.” That lit his fuse. He went on and on about slavery, Robert E. Lee and a false narrative about history. I remember my son and I walking out. He turned to me and said, “That was the strangest conversation I ever had.” I said, “Jordan, his robes are in the back.” It was at that moment I realized the pharmacist could be making a phone call right now to some of his buddies. For a second I had the sinking feeling that we, like Emmett, might not make it out of the Mississippi Delta alive.

Emmett’s murder was not in vain. It galvanized a Movement. Rosa Parks said she was thinking about Emmett when she refused to get to the back of the bus. Today, it is a reminder that we must always stand out and not stand back when it comes to confronting those things that are unjust in our world.

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