Remembering Emmett Till
While I was in High School I remember watching a video from the Eyes on the Prize series in my history class. Being a white kid in a fairly progressive community I was stunned by the imagery and stories. No single portion affected me more than the story of Emmett Till who was murdered for reportedly whistling at a white woman.
Since learning about his story and also teaching about it to my own classes, I am often curious when his name starts to trend once again. The recent disgusting photos of the students from Ole Miss posing with guns at the site where his body was found infuriated me.
As a teacher I used to do a memorial project with my students and being the teacher that I was, I did the project myself before assigning it to my own students. The subject I chose for my own was based upon Emmett Till. While doing research I stumbled across a small website and called the phone number. After several rings, a woman answered the phone and I explained to her what I was doing regarding the project and asked if she could possibly provide some information about Emmett that might not have been widely as known. The woman on the other end began to chuckle a bit and then said "Well, I might be able to help because I'm his mama."
I was absolutely stunned that I was talking to her. After all these years of sharing the videos of her mourning the loss of her son and then defiantly demanding an open casket funeral, I was finally speaking to the woman myself. For over an hour and a half we chatted on the phone about her son. At one point she said that she felt that Emmett had not whistled and that it was due in part to a speech impediment he had from a bout with polio. Sometimes, she said, that when Emmett was nervous the last part of a sentence might come out in a whistling sound.
We also talked about forgiveness and whether she ever was able to forgive what happened to her son. Eventually she had to let it go. She said that she went through so many years of hating and that it was consuming her, so she had to simply forgive but then make something lasting about her sons memory.
I have visited the site of Bryant's Grocery on a few occasions through the years. Having long been closed, its exterior has crumbled and has been overtaken by vines. Several years ago I attempted to visit the historic marker showing the location of where his body was found along the banks of the Tallahatchee River. I was unsuccessful then because some people had ripped it out of the ground with a truck and had tossed it. Last year I found the new memorial marker that had already been shot by cowards as target practice. Currently, they are planning on placing a new bulletproof sign at the location. How sad is it that I have to write last sentence?
It is beyond my comprehension why anyone would do this and why those Ole Miss students would make light of such a horrific tragedy. There's something truly rotten in their souls to think that this is some sort of comedic photo.
Perhaps I'm being naive but I do wish that the students in that photo would visit The Museum of African American History and Culture and see the Emmett Till Memorial. Inside rests the original glass topped coffin that Emmett was buried in. Back in 2005 an new investigation was launched into his murder. Emmett was exhumed for a new autopsy and when he was laid to rest again, he was placed in a new casket. The original was eventually donated to the Smithsonian and serves as the primary object in the exhibit. Would their hearts be changed? I would hope so.
As I have always said to my students, Emmett Till, though long dead will continue to haunt our American memory. It is my intention to go and pay my respects to both Emmett and his mothers gravesites in the near future.