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Weekend Soliloquy: Civil Rights and Triumph Over Mistake August 28, 2010

Emmett Til

All over mainstream media, the story today is focused on the Glenn Beck “Restoring  Honor” rally; the strongest reactions coming from the political left.

“Tea Partiers are having a rally on Martin Luther King’s Washington March Anniversary!!!”

But today August 28th is also another anniversary which marks a historic moment in the quest for equality–the death of Emmett Till.

Emmet was a young boy of 14 years, from Chicago, Illinois.  One summer in 1955,  Emmett’s mother Mamie Carthan Till,  allowed him to visit his uncle Moses Wright, in Money, Mississippi a small southern town.   This was a customary tradition among African Americans in many northern cities.  We migrated from the delta,  Alabama,Memphis, whatever southern state you were from  but during the summers you send the kids back “down south”.

Emmett arrived in Mississippi on August 21, 1955.  For several days the young black boy visited with his southern relatives without incident.  Known for being “sassy”,  his mother had warned him of the consequences of his behavior in the south which was nothing like Chicago.  The black code of acceptable behavior in the Black Metropolis was restricted in southern regions where lynchings took place.  For this very reason, a black man could not say the same things to whites and get away with it as he might would in the north.

Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Cartham Till

But Emmett was just a child and did not heed his mother’s warnings.  Fifty-five years ago today, Emmett Till was brutally murdered because of an innocent mistake.  What ensued was a media and civil rights sensation.

Sensation is one sure way to bring attention to a cause, especially on the anniversary of a historic event such as one commemorating the Civil Rights Movement and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.  But today is also Emmett’s day.

And it is a day to think of mistakes and what we can transform them into.  What do you have left once a mistake is made?

“We should have told my father,” said the man about Emmett Till. But they were just boys being boys.  After a day of picking cotton, they went to Bryant’s Store to buy candy with their hard earned pennies.  What if they had not gone to the store? What if Emmett had not whistled at the white woman?

When Emmett’s body arrived in Chicago on September 2, 1955, Mamie Till saw the horror of what “they” did to her son.  She insisted on an open casket public funeral.

“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,”  she would say.

“Emmett never should have whistled at that white woman,”  my mother would tell me. “Never make the mistake of speaking out of turn to whites…we all knew that. Heck you almost did not get away with it in Chicago but you know black boys have to see the white girls and get something they don’t have…Just like your brother over in Germany dating every white woman he can get his hands on. “

I wondered why did the adults let Emmet be taken away.

“Couldn’t someone stop them?” I asked. Why do black people always seem so helpless?  Here I was  eleven years old and all I ever heard was stories about black men being killed.  Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. , now this Emmett Till boy.

Mother laughed at the ignorance of my question.  Dumb girl growing up in the 1980’s who benefits from the struggles of her forefathers. What does Afrocity know?

“Afrocity that is down south…Black folks down there let whites do whatever the hell they want to them and that woman never should have let her son go down there.  Why go back down south when you worked so hard to get here?”

African American Quilt- "Sold Down South"

“Momma did people get hanged here like in Roots ?”

“Not like that,” mother answered. “That thing only happens in the south where rednecks live. They tried to kill your grandfather for dating a white girl in Mississippi…Backwards is the south- no place for a black boy to be.”

By now you probably think my mother was a racist.  You may be correct on some level but please understand that for my mother, the story of Emmet Till was too close to home.  Like us,  Emmett was a Chicagoan. He was two years younger than my mother. The tragedy occurred only several months after she had given birth to her first child, a son.

She was sixteen years old and a mother who had a made a mistake and gotten pregnant.

No one congratulates mothers who are sixteen.  She lay there in the hospital under the stares of nurses and her siblings- the ostracism of her preacher father.

She was humiliated and alone.

My mother did not know Mamie Till though I am sure they crossed paths on the bus or some point during the course of a busy day in the Black Metropolis.  Mamie like, my mother would raise her new son as a single woman. But mother would see her son become a man and Mamie would not.  After the birth of her mistake, mother would pick up Jet magazine and read the story of the boy who was murdered on August 28th, 1955.

In my brother’s newborn face she saw the face of Emmett Till; a young African American male who faced the obstacles of racism.  She did not want her son to end up in someone’s river.

I whined,  “What about me? Why can’t I go down south for the summer like Teresa and everyone else?   I am always left here and my friends-“

Mother gave me that turned up- pursed lip look.  “Do you want to go pick cotton and live like a slave?”


I did not believe that would happen because my friends always came back from down south with freshly cornrowed hair, tanned skin  and new clothes.  Jealousy over their having someplace to go other than Chicago made me want to travel down south too. “…but Teresa says she has lots of fun-“

“Fun doing what?” mother mocked. ” Fun being afraid of what to do and say in front of white people? You know about those kids being murdered like water in Atlanta! Teresa is gonna end up tied to a tree with panties stuffed in her mouth like that girl Angel.  She was 11 years old just like you. Ronald Reagan is trying ti hush those folks up with money- knowing damn well that some crazy white redneck is killing those kids.”

Mother was referring to the Atlanta Child Murders which were taking place at the time.

“You better be appreciative of what you have in Chicago,” she lectured on ” You are in a place that is free from slavery and stupid backwards white people. They all voted for Ronald Reagan… He said he wants to make America what it once was. You know what that means don’t cha?”

I shook my head.

“He wants America to be for whites again. A place where blacks have no power like we did in the 40’s and 50’s.  That’s what Ronald Reagan means when he talks about America being what it used to be.”

Afrocity never went down south.

We would not make make the same mistakes.

Reportedly Martin Luther King was told that he was making a mistake by marching on Washington… but he did it anyway.

This makes me wonder about mistakes and where they position us in life after they take place.

What happens if all of the bad, senseless, stupid  things in life never happened?

What if man never made mistakes?

Was it a mistake for Martin Luther King Jr. to walk out on that Memphis motel  balcony in 1968?  Did Jesse Jackson ever think afterwards “why did we let Martin do that?”

Let’s suppose that Jackson, had said to MLK “You know what Martin, I do not think that is a good idea…tensions are high…you had better be careful?”

So King did not walk onto the balcony and was never assassinated.

Where would we be today had King not been murdered? Would African Americans have been even better with his continued counsel?  Would liberals still argue with Glenn Beck over his right to restore honor?

Would there still be a President Obama had Dr. King lived?

What if someone had intervened on 9/11 before those planes crashed into the World Trade Center?

Had someone at Boston’s Logan Airport  said “You know what , something is not right about that guy and I am going to report it.”     And very near the plane’s departure a flight attendant tapped a would be hijacker’s shoulder and said “Sir come with me…”

Would there not be a fight over a mosque being built in NYC today?

Like lots of people, I always ask myself where would I be if I had not made mistakes in life.  What if I acted sooner?  Some mistakes have a greater impact than others.   I should have studied harder in high school so I could have attended a better college thus allowing myself more opportunities.  That was a somewhat minor mistake.  I did go to college albeit not an Ivy League but I did get my bachelors, and subsequently a Masters Degree.  My career is fulfilling and I live a fairly comfortable life.  Does this gloss over the mistake?

Do you fall off track and somehow get back on at other stages in your life?

Sometimes, you can’t recover. Some mistakes have greater consequences and involve life and death.

What if I had went to visit my mother sooner? Would she be alive today?

What if  a mother never let her son visit his uncle in Mississippi in August of 1955?

Would there still be an Emmett Till today?

Would Bob Dylan have written a wonderful tribute to the little black boy killed by racism and ignorance in Mississippi?

The Death Of Emmett Till

Lyrics by Bob Dylan

Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago,
When a young boy from Chicago walked through a
Southern door.
This boy’s fateful tragedy you should all remember well,
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.
They said they had a reason, but I disremember what.
They tortured him and did some things too evil to
There was screaming sounds inside the barn, there was
laughing sounds out on the street.

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a blood-red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his
screaming pain.
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it
was no lie,
He was a Black skin boy so he was born to die
And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor
Emmett Till.
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers
commit this awful crime,
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.

I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs.
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime
that’s so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is
filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and
your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that
ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we
could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

Would we still have been able to learn the lessons we have from Emmett’s death?

Autographed Letter Signed,


Emmett Louis Till

(July 25, 1941-August 28, 1955)

(Here is nice interpretation of the Till story by Bob Dylan)