July 25 he would have been 67. When this picture was taken, he was a mischevious, fun loving 14 year old. It is sobering to think about what he could have been. A scientist, a lawyer, a politician. An artist. A husband, father, grandfather. But it was a life cut short. Entirely too short by a brutality and cruelty that is unthinkable had it not been so common.
His name was Emmitt Till. He lived in Chicago but was visiting his great uncle, aunt and cousins in Money, Mississippi. When he and his cousins went stopped in the town store to buy candy, he committed the unpardonable sin of whistling at a white woman. And for that, three days later, the husband of the offended woman and his friend, came to his great uncle's house, rousted him out of bed, kidnapped him and visciously, savagely, mercilessly beat him to death.
Then they tied a 70 pound cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and threw him in the Talahatchie River.
He probably should have known better. Maybe he should have understood the ways southern mores differed from those of the north in 1955. But he was 14 and this was his fate.
His mother had to have officials from Chicago intervene to keep the city officials in Money from burying Emmitt in order to cover up the crime.
When she got the body to Chicago, she refused to have a closed casket ceremony. She wanted America to see what racism had done to her boy. And so, sacrifing the right to privatize her pain and mourn in the shadows, she shared her grief with the world.
Chicago filed past the gruesome figure - the remains of her only son - and so did the rest of the country as pictures made their way across the U.S. and around the world via JET Magazine, a small weekly publication by Ebony Magazine. It came to symbolize the horrific nature of hatred
bigotry, repression and oppression in the South. A 14 year old boy, so badly beaten by grown men that he is horribly disfigured, first by the beating and then by three days laying undiscovered in those Mississsippi
The two men were put on trial. There were two parts of the trial that stand out, when I hear the story: one was when the great uncle, Mose Wright, stands up in the court room and against all the conventions of that day pointed out the men who came into his house and kidnapped his nephew. It took a courage that I doubt I would have had, but it was an act of brave act of defiance that most of us probably can't understand today.
The next thing is the outcome of the trial. The two men were acquitted. In spite of eye witnessess and incontrovertable evidence, an all white, all male jury found them not guilty after an hour of deliberation. One juror said it wouldn't have taken that long if they hadn't taken time to drink soda pop!
The two men were later no billed by a grand jury on the kidnapping idictment.
In January 1956, they sold their story to LOOK magazine for $4000. They told the story of how they murdered Emmitt Till.
What's amazing, is that out of that tragedy, the seeds of the modern day Civil Rights Movement were planted. Black people began to see how cheaply their lives were regarded and began to stand up to be recognized as human beings with dignity and a sense of their own self worth.
It wasn't full flower right then. There were other murders: Jimmie Lee Jackson, Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. There wouldn't be a meaningful Civil Rights Bill until 1964, no Voting Rights Bill until 1965. No Federal anti-lynching law until 1968. But gradually it became clear that Emmitt didn't die in vain.
Or did he? When I think of how little we regard life, both black and white. How we disfigure one another with stereotypes, suspicion and the same hatred that took this boy's life.
As a society we still cut off young people from their future - not with gun butts and blows from cruel murderous fists - but by poorly educating them and leaving them frustrated and without hope. An atmosphere of violence is still is a part of our culture: gang violence, black on black violence, racial hatred and the gross insensitivity that refuses to recognize the humanity of our neighbors because they are black, or brown, or white, or poor; the paranoia that makes it so hard to make room for one another; and our suspicion of one another that creates the space to continually do or allow to be done, terrible, horrible things to one another.
Perhaps this is all a little remote, way too preachy. But there's a 14 year old who's not celebrating his 67th birthday this July 25. I think its worth remembering and trying to learn from his life and his death.