Picture: The bridge over the Tallahatchie River near where Till’s body was found, Glendora, MS
As I stood on this bridge a few weeks ago in October, I tried to imagine what scene that bridge might have witnessed nearly 67 years ago on the night of August 28, 1955, when 14 year-old Emmett Till’s brutalized body was tied with wire to a giant barn exhaust fan and dumped into the Tallahatchie River never to be found or seen again.
Except that he was. Just three days later two fishermen found his bloated body and called the sheriff. Once the sheriff got involved he pretty quickly put two and two together and made hasty plans to bury the body as soon as possible, before anyone else heard the news—like the boy’s family--and started asking too many questions in the quiet town of Money, MS.
But he grossly underestimated the determination and courage of Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley—and even more importantly—the unbreakable bond that is forged between a mother and her child. Still in Chicago, Emmett’s hometown, Mamie telephoned her relatives in Mississippi and told them in no uncertain terms that her boy would not be buried in Mississippi. Instead, she gave them strict instructions to ship the body to Chicago. The funeral home prepared the body as best as they could given the torturous treatment the young boy suffered at the hands of the two white men who were filled with rage over a “n****r” who had forgotten his place among Southern white folk, and the fact that the body was bloated and decomposing after lying three days in the waters of the river.
But what really blew open this secret lynching into a national outrage—while dozens of similar such incidents never saw the light of justice—was Mamie’s decision to hold an open casket at Emmett’s funeral in Chicago “so the world can see what they did to my boy.” A mother’s horrific grief transubstantiated into resolute courage, which redeemed a personal tragedy into a transformative movement that shook America for the next decade and more.
What I did not realize until I listened to John Biewen’s episode “Movement Time” on his national podcast “Scene On Radio,” was how closely connected the murder of Emmett Till was to Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery just a few days after the trial was over for the murder of Emmett Till.
Here’s a portion of the interview between John Biewen and historian Tim Tyson from that podcast:
[Tim Tyson speaking] “Yeah, the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam is over in late September. But on the first of December, Rosa Parks was arrested on the bus in Montgomery. Now, what happened was that Dr. T.R.M. Howard, who is one of the Black activists who found the witnesses during the trial - what I call the 'Mississippi Underground' - T.R.M. Howard spoke at Dexter Memorial Baptist Church, invited there by Reverend Dr Martin Luther King. When he spoke, and he spoke well everywhere he spoke, Rosa Parks was in the congregation and was deeply moved. And it was four days later that she was arrested on the bus in Montgomery, and she later said, 'I thought about Emmett Till and I couldn't move.' So there's that.
“Then the murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of his killers inspired a national protest movement fed by Mamie Till and Black Chicago, the largest Black newspaper in the country; huge Black labor unions; large Black NAACP, the strongest Black political machine in the country. That's what makes this an international issue. It becomes a global issue, getting into the politics of the Cold War. It's also the birth of television. This is about the first moment when a whole lot of people have a television. This was a different day. So it wasn't just something that happened in the deep, dark, exotic, Southern wild, but instead was about African American life and it was about the chasm of race in America in Chicago, as well as in Mississippi. It lays the groundwork for a national civil rights movement.
“The other really important moment in the birth of the Civil Rights Movement is the sit-in movement that the students start on February 1st, 1960, that spreads in just a couple of months to nine states and a couple of hundred communities, cities and towns. That turns the movement into a mass movement. The sit-in movement also turned that movement into a movement that was rooted in non-violent, direct action. Now, the sit-in students were Emmett Till's age.
“Joyce Ladner, who was from the Mississippi Delta, who was Emmett Till's age, who organized for voting rights in Mississippi, who was one of the students who founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] and one of the early sit-in students, she calls her contemporaries the 'Emmett Till generation'. If Emmett Till had lived till 1960, five years later, he would have been 20. They were 19. They were 20. They were 21. They were 18. All of them can tell you where they were when they saw the picture in Jet magazine of Emmett Till's body or when they heard what had happened to Emmett Till. All of them have a story about how the Emmett Till lynching affected them."
John Biewen then asked Tyson how he sees the election of Donald Trump, which had just happened when this podcast was broadcast in January, 2017. Tyson responded by saying that “…Trump's victory makes clear the enduring force of white supremacy in American political life,” and he pointed out that “much of what was achieved by the civil rights movement has been eroded: the gutting of the Voting Rights Act; the re-segregation of schools.”
“[Tim Tyson speaking]: It's two steps forward and one step back. There has been a clarifying step back with the election of Donald Trump but we're going to see two steps forward because it's movement time.
“And you can see it all over this country, with the young people of the Black Lives Matter movement and Latino movements. You see LGBTQ movements. You see the NAACP all over the country. You see Moral Monday coming up out of North Carolina. You see 'Fight for 15' where people are demanding living wages. All over the country, these struggles are happening and they're coming together. This is more interracial than the Civil Rights Movement ever was. It's as interracial as the Civil Rights Movement dreamed it would be. It's about inequality. It's about a repressive criminal justice system that doesn't make us safer. It's about the neglect of our environment. It's about an attack on women's rights.
“All of these movements are coming together and we're going to see a reawakening of the movement spirit, and I predict that this is going to be an age, eventually, of great progress and a great opening in American life.”
“[James] Baldwin writes, 'Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ Our strivings will unfold in a fallen world among imperfect people who have inherited a deeply tragic history…. [But] we have the boundless, moral landscape where Mamie Bradley still shakes the earth with her candor and courage….We can still hear the marching feet of millions in the streets of America, all of them belonging to the children of Emmett Till’.” (emphasis mine)
Most of us don’t choose to suffer or die for the good of our family, or community, or nation. Certainly that was not Emmett Till’s intention. And many who unwillingly suffer or die do not end up igniting movements or even changing unjust conditions and circumstances. What sparks change and forward movement is the community of people who walk with the victims of injustice, who one day decide to draw the line in the sand and say “enough is enough,” because they realize that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Emmett Till never lived long enough to have children of his own. But in another way, his life and death gave birth to millions of children who stood in his place, drew a line in the sand, and put their own lives at risk at sit-ins, marches, protests, voter registration drives… willing to fight for justice in place of all those who suffered great injustice.
--To the Children of Emmett Till.
Acknowledgements, and For Further Study:
The above thoughts are my reflections on listening to John Biewen’s Episode “Movement Time” from his January 25, 2017 podcast “Scene on Radio.” To go deeper I encourage you to listen to John Biewen’s podcast. You can also download the transcript of this Episode HERE.
You may also be interested in John Biewen’s episode “Emmett and Trayvon” from his January 11, 2017 rebroadcast on Scene On Radio.
Read more about the full story of Emmett Till by historian Tim Tyson in his 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.”