Never to be forgotten: Remembering Emmett Till

Two museums, a library archive, a website, and an app devoted to preserving the memory of Emmett Till

Citations edited 6/26/2020

On this day, August 28, 64 years ago, at about 2:30 am, a 14-year old black child was kidnapped from the Mississippi home of his great-uncle by two white men after supposedly whistling at a white woman in a store. The white men beat the child, put a bullet through his head, tied a cotton gin fan around his neck, and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. The child’s body was found on August 31, 1955, his face swollen and disfigured beyond recognition (Details cited from: The Murder of Emmett Till, n.d.; History.com editors, 2009a and 2009b).

The image of that dead child, Emmett Till, horrified the world. His mother, Mamie Till, instructed the undertaker not to clean up his face. She wanted people to see the gruesomeness of what had been done to her son. Two months after his death, she gave a speech at an NAACP rally in Baltimore, during which she talked about her decision to have an open-casket funeral:

“I would like for as many people to walk in here and see this thing as want to come. As long as we cover these things up, they’re going to keep on happening, I said. I’m pulling the lid off this one” (Houck & Dixon, 2008, p. 18; 23-24)

I will never forget that face. I will never forget the photo of Mamie Till at the funeral, next to her son’s casket, her hand clutched at her side, her eyes squeezed shut, her face and body straining, her grief and anguish almost palpable.

Had he lived, Emmett Till would be 78 years old now. I wonder what kind of life he would have led, had he been allowed to have one. He once told his mother that he wanted to be a motorcycle cop. She said he liked to solve problems and negotiate things, and that he would have made a good preacher, lawyer, or politician (Till-Mobley & Benson, 2003). Perhaps he would have become a teacher, like his mom, and had a son of his own.

We cannot give Emmett Till his life back, but we can make sure that the circumstances of his death are never forgotten. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has an Emmett Till Memorial where visitors can reflect upon the events that led up to the killing and see the casket that held Till’s body. I visited the memorial this past summer and was overwhelmed by the emotions I felt. I want everyone who can get to it to go and feel the history enshrined there.

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center is a museum devoted to telling Emmett Till’s story. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the chance to visit this museum, but it sounds like an incredible place. I was deeply moved by the museum’s mission, as stated on their website: “We exist to tell the story of Emmett Till in a way that moves people forward. We use art and story-telling to help process past pains and imagine new possibilities for the future.” The website contains a video featuring representatives of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission talking about the psychological impact of the killing and the importance of the public apology to the Till family.

The Emmett Till Archives, housed at Florida State University, contain both physical and digital components. The online repository holdings include newspaper clippings about the murder, the papers of Mamie Till-Bradley’s lawyer, Joseph Tobias, and CBS audiovisual footage.

Florida State University professor Davis Houck has created The Emmett Till Memory Project app and website. The website contains stories about the people and the historic sites related to the Emmett Till murder and subsequent trial. The app, which can be downloaded from the website, is set up so that users can view the picture of a historic location and then access archival documents related to it.

I must admit that, when I first read about the app, I was skeptical. How could you possibly communicate the history, the gravity, and the horror of the Emmett Till murder through a smartphone?

What changed my thinking were Professor Houck’s words (as published in the Tallahassee Democrat):

“Our app is designed to tell his story in ways that the existing historical markers cannot. It’s out of reach to would-be vandals.”

The last point is such an important one, and yet it would never have occurred to me as someone who does not think often about historical marker vandalism.

Sadly, the preservers of Emmett Till’s memory have no choice but to think about it. As Tallahassee Democrat reporter Dave Heller (2019) notes:

“A recent photo posted on social media showed three white University of Mississippi students toting rifles beside a bullet-riddled marker commemorating the location where Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 31, 1955. That location and several markers have been repeatedly vandalized over the past decade.”

The Emmett Till Memorial Commission has issued a public call to action requesting support for its efforts to preserve the Emmett Till historic sites.

The thought of someone vandalizing Emmett Till historical markers sickens me to the core. And it frightens me. That people can hold so much fury in their hearts toward an innocent, dead black child says much about the racist hatred still poisoning this country.

It is important to remember how Emmett Till died. It is just as important to remember who he was. Emmett Till was a child: a child who overcame polio; a child with a personality, a laugh, a heart, and dreams; a child who tried to help people work things out. A child who will never be forgotten.

References

Heller, D. (2019, August 19). FSU prof launches app on history of civil rights icon Emmett Till. Tallahassee Democrat. Retrieved from https://www.tallahassee.com/story/life/causes/2019/08/19/fsu-prof-launches-app-emmett-till-history/2030920001/

History.com editors (2009a, November 13). Emmett Till murderers make magazine confession. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/emmett-till-murderers-make-magazine-confession

History.com editors (2009b, December 2). Emmett Till. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/emmett-till-1

Houck, D. W., & Dixon, D. E. (2006). Rhetoric, religion and the civil rights movement, 1954-1965 (Ser. Studies in rhetoric and religion, 1, 15). Baylor University Press.

Houck, D. W., & Dixon, D. E. (Eds.). (2009). Women and the civil rights movement, 1954-1965. University Press of Mississippi. (e-book)

The Murder of Emmett Till. (n.d.). Library of Congress Civil Rights History Project. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/collections/civil-rights-history-project/articles-and-essays/murder-of-emmett-till/

Till-Mobley, M., & Benson, C. (2003). Death of innocence : The story of the hate crime that changed America (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

Related links

Update 09/02/2019: After this piece was posted, a reader sent me this link to Audre Lorde’s poem about Emmett Till: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42582/afterimages

Additional poems about the Emmett Till murder and trial

The Murder of Emmett Till: Timeline

Emmett Till Archives: Florida State University

Emmett Till Interpretive Center

Emmett Till Memory Project

National Museum of African American History and Culture

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