By Taki S. Raton
“We’ve known his story forever, it seems. Maybe that’s because it’s a tale so stark and powerful that it has assumed an air of timelessness, something almost mythical,” says writer Richard Rubin in the opening remarks in his article “The Ghosts of Emmett Till” appearing in the July 31, 2005 issue of the “New York Times” magazine.
While Till’s story may transcends time and space, it also strikingly illuminates a continuing stark reality of America and the Black man’s place and unique circumstance, both past and present, on these shores. And there is certainly nothing “mythical” about Emmett and his tortuous death on August 28, 1955 in Money, Mississippi.
This August 28 will mark the 56th –year observance of the murder of Emmett Louis (Bobo) Till. But even today, we may find that the fourteen-year-old in his horrific surmise had – or yet still has – an unsettled spirit; a spirit still calling forth a response from the living, a response perhaps grieving for both justice and closure to a vibrant, carefree and joyous life snatched away in the darkened abyss of a Mississippi Delta night, snuffed by bludgeoning blows and what appears to be a carefully aimed bullet to the head.
With the blessing of his mother Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett left his 6427 South St. Lawrence Chicago address on August 20,1955 for a visit with his uncle Mose in Money, Mississippi. This young teen was fatherless and his mother felt that it would be good for him to be around male relatives.
On August 24, the fourth day of his stay, Till, his cousins Simeon and Maurice Wright and Wheeler Parker went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. While in the store, by some accounts, Till allegedly made inappropriate remarks to the then 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the owner’s wife, and even wolf-whistled at her.
Four days later around 2 a.m. Sunday, August 28, Carolyn’s husband Roby Bryant, his half brother J.W. Milam, and others including at least one identified Black man, forcibly took Emmett from his bed in his uncle’s house.
Three days later on August 31, Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound steel cotton gin fan barbed wired to his neck. His head and body had been beaten and tortured. An apparent bullet hole was found in his forehead.
On September 3, Emmett’s body was taken to Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God for viewing and funeral services. A reported over 50,000 mourners came to view the mutilated body. Mama Till insisted on an opencasket viewing to show what had been done to her son.
Appearing in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, the graphic photos of Till’s battered body in the casket galvanized disgust throughout the country and provided the emerging thrust of what would soon unfold as the country’s Civil Rights Movement.
The twenty-four year old Bryant and 36-year-old Milam were arrested and charged with the young teen’s death.
Nonetheless, a twelve member all-white jury in a Sumner, Mississippi segregated courthouse on Friday, September 23, after deliberating for just 67 minutes, acquitted the defendants.
Within the Milwaukee – Chicago corridor, Emmett’s restless spirit has literally “latched on” to a wide range of individuals, activities and pronouncements through which his story is revived and resurrected.
On Friday, February 24, 2006, an auditorium filled with area dignitaries, school staff, and parents assembled at the 6543 South Champlain Avenue at what would be the former McCosh Elementary School where Till attended.
As Rosalind Rossi described in her February 13 Chicago Sun-Times writing “We name schools after heroes,” “A wide-eyed seventh-grader who walked the halls of James McCosh Elementary School some 50 years ago will soon have his name emblazoned on the marquee outside it.”
At the above noted assembly, invited guest were present to rededicate McCosh as the Emmett Louis Till Math & Science Academy. Retired educator E.W. Spears, Till’s seventh-grade teacher, was his last instructor. Emmett was killed just shortly before he was due to start eighth grade at McCosh.
As noted in the Rossi article, walking into Classroom 111 during the day of the renaming, “Spears could still picture the wooden desk near the front of the fifth row where Till spent his last days in school, working amid a sea of 42 other students seated alphabetically.”
Since the name change, 10 eighth-grade students have formed the Emmett Till Club towards the effort of cultivating and advancing Till’s legacy.
Here in Milwaukee as part of an expanded demonstration project under the direction of art instructor Gavin Smith, Blyden Delany Academy’s fifth through eighth grade students prepared an exhibit honoring Till which opened Saturday, August 25, 2006 for two weeks at the African American Women’s Center. This presentation, formatted as a traveling exhibit, unveiled a lifestyle mache model of the slain teen.
Entitled “Emmett”, the exhibit focused on the life and death of Till and his significance to African American youth. The program additionally honored the nationally renowned playwrite Ifa Bayeza who devoted more than a decade to the research and writing of her play “Till” which opened at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre April 26, 2008. An estimated 17,000 theater goers patronized the 850 seat Albert Theater over its seven-week run towards its extended June 1 closing date.
Considered to be one of the foremost scholars on the life of Emmett Till and the circumstances surrounding his murder, Bayeza planned and facilitated a two-day professional development in-service on the slain youth for the then Blyden faculty on April 28 and April 29, 2006. The playwright was also the recipient in New York of the famed Edgar Award for Best Play in 2009. Her second production on Till opened at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles February 20, 2010.
The 2005 documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” by producer/director Keith A. Beauchamp uncovering detailed events surrounding his death and the trail of his killers is available free online.