Black, White, Gay, Straight, Jew, Gentile, Human – Remembering Emmett and Mamie Till
Emmett Till was a 14 year old African American boy from Chicago, whose mother sent him to Mississippi for the summer to visit his cousins. One day he went to the grocery store to buy candy. At the store, it was reported he whistled at a white woman. Later that week, he was brutally murdered. That was August 28, 1955. Fifty-five years ago today.
My son is 14 years old. He goes to the corner store all the time to buy a drink or ice cream with his friends. This summer, I sent my son on his own to Michigan to spend two weeks at the lake with his best friend and his family. In 1955, Emmett was having the same summer my son had this year. My son came home. Emmett lost his life.
The murder of Emmett Till is noted as one of the events that motivated the American Civil Rights Movement. It was not only his murder that was shocking, it was also the incredible courage and grace of his mother Mamie. Mamie insisted on a public funeral with an open casket. She wanted to show the world what was done to her son, and what was happening in the south.
Mamie wanted people to see that her beloved Emmett was beaten and had one of his eyes gouged out. He was then shot through the head, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was discovered and retrieved from the river three days later. He was just a child.
Two men, one of which was the husband of the woman who Emmett whistled at, were acquitted of his murder by a jury of 12 white men. They later admitted they murdered Emmitt to “make an example” out of him. The murderers are both dead now, and were never punished for what they did to this boy. They died proud of what they had done.
It is unfathomable that this could happen. How far has the United States come in the last 55 years? On October 21, 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay. On August 24, 2010, Ahmed Sharif was attacked in his New York City taxi for being a Muslim. What is happening? How is it possible that today, we are where we were?
I was blessed to meet Mamie Till. When I worked at Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, she came on a tour. It was a weekend, and my son came with me to meet her. He was about 3 years old. Mamie was being pushed around in a wheelchair, and at one point my son told her he was tired and asked her if he could have a ride.
Mamie said of course and pulled my son up on her lap. Once he was settled in, he turned to Mamie and asked her if she was made out of chocolate. She laughed and stuck out her arm. My son licked her and told her she tasted like chocolate. He then put out his arm, she kissed it, and told him he tasted like vanilla. They both laughed and my son hugged her.
It was a wonderful day. I knew of Mamie’s story and was so honored to meet her. I remember telling her I loved her. As I look at my now 14 year old son, I love her even more. Mamie was 33 when her baby was murdered. I look at her strength and I am in awe of her in a way that I did not fully understand when I met her.
As parents it is our obligation to our children to share the story of Emmett and Mamie. We must teach our children that more important than black, white, gay, straight, Jew, Gentile or Muslim, we are human beings. If we cannot learn from the past, and not allow history to repeats itself, then what kind of parents are we? The hate must stop.
Mamie’s autobiography is called Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. I encourage you to learn about this remarkable woman. I carry her love for Emmett in my heart. I will teach my son about Emmett, and Matthew, and Ahmed. I will raise my son to have an open heart so that he can change the world.
We must not allow Emmett or Matthew to have died in vain. We must take what happened to them and fight, so that it never happens to another human being. We are all the same. Regardless of faith or color, we are at the core, all the same, and must treat each other with respect and compassion. It may never happen, but it might, so I’m keeping the faith.