Alexander is a poet, scholar and the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of arts, culture, and humanities.
In 2020, stories about young Black people like Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor—as well as those of adults like George Floyd—spotlit the persistent, terrifying specter of unjust violence and the precarity of Black life in the United States. Their stories roused many in our country to outrage over their murders, and to a collective consciousness about the prevalence of race-based brutality in our day-to-day lives.
But stories like these are not limited to 2020 and the few years that preceded it. They are part of a long strand—one that is entwined through the generations to the very genesis of our country itself. Telling those stories is a crucial part of justice work.
This month marks what would have been the birthday of another young Black person whose murder was woven into our history several decades ago. His name is Emmett Till.
Some may learn about Till’s story here for the first time. Some may know it already. But today, on what would have been Till’s 80th birthday, it is imperative that we tell his story again.
In the summer of 1955, Till traveled south from his home in Chicago for a visit to extended family. He was 14 years old and loved to fish, play baseball, ride bikes, and tell jokes. According to his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, he was full of energy and verve. Photographs of Till before she sent him off from Chicago show a beaming boy dressed in a crisp shirt, tie, and jaunty porkpie hat.
Like millions of Black Chicagoans in the 20th century, Till’s family had left the violence of the South as part of the Great Migration. Families like his had ties in places like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas: places where their young city kids could go for the summer to enjoy fresh air, open space, and a sense of the families they descended from.
Till arrived in the rural Mississippi Delta in August 1955, and stayed at the home of his great-uncle and great-aunt. There he played with friends, picked cotton, helped his great-aunt around the house, and – in the town of Money, MS – made a fateful stop with his cousins to buy bubble gum at the store where Black sharecroppers’ children often went to buy candy.
After the boys walked out the door of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the white woman who owned the store with her husband alleged that Till had flirted with her.
Four nights later, two white men—the husband and the brother-in-law of the accuser—came to the home where Till was staying. He was asleep next to one of his cousins. The two men, who were armed, menaced his family. Then they dragged Till away at gunpoint.
Over the next few hours, the two men—likely with several others—tortured him and mutilated him.
They shot him.
They tied a 75-pound cotton-gin fan around his neck with barbed wire.
Then they threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Till’s family immediately reported him missing. But it was not until three days after his murder that Till’s naked body was pulled from the water.
Mamie Till-Mobley insisted that her son’s body be returned to Chicago. And when she saw him with her own eyes—his body made unrecognizable by the violence of racial hatred—Till-Mobley made an unspeakably brave choice: she decided that her 14 year-old child must be seen by mourners in an open casket.
“Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said.
That was the decision that brought more than 100,000 people to the South Side of Chicago to see what had been done to Emmett Till, a boy who had gone like so many others from Chicago and elsewhere to spend the summer with family. Many were shocked; many fell out from grief. All witnessed and mourned. Countless more people saw Till and learned his story when photographs of the viewing were published in Jet magazine.
Sixty-six years later, Emmett Till’s story remains harrowing but also emblematic. His great-uncle courageously risked his own life to confront the two murderers during the subsequent trial, testifying on the stand in a courthouse packed with white spectators. After just five days, the murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury. Justice was not done in the courtroom.
If there is hope, it lies in this truth: the story of Emmett Till became a sorrowful symbolic catalyst for further action in the American civil rights movement. Mamie Till-Mobley’s bravery further empowered civil rights activists, and made them even more aflame with purpose—much as the bravery of the loved ones who chose to make known the stories of Arbery, Taylor, and too many others has galvanized more people in our country to fight for justice today.
Because of Till-Mobley, what had happened in the shadows for hundreds of years in the U.S. was brought to light. Those two men, like so many murderers before them, tried to bury the truth of what they had done and keep Till’s body in the river. His mother would not let that happen.
Till, whose accuser fabricated a depiction of him as sexually threatening, did not escape the character assassination that follows Black children when they are killed. This character assassination takes the shapes of various arguments—that Tamir Rice should not have been playing with a toy gun, or that Trayvon Martin should not have been wearing a hoodie when he went to buy Skittles.
Even those Black children who are not murdered but still terrorized—such as the teenage girl who was slammed into the ground by a police officer when she was at a pool party with her friends—are affected by the deadly myth that Black people are aggressors who bring violence upon themselves; that they somehow deserve extreme punishment; that their deaths are by-products of “reasonable” actions.
Till and his peers across the generations were murdered solely because they were young, Black, and full of life—as they were supposed to be.
We cannot measure the collective loss of all these young people who never grew up, who never had the chance to lead, shape, and contribute to their families and communities as adults and elders. Their loved ones like Till-Mobley, who chose to bring to light the stories of their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins and nephews and nieces and grandchildren, know the unspeakable magnitude of their loss. And our loss.
The casket that held Emmett Till’s body now lies in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. For 66 years, that casket has been a symbol of Till’s story. It helped make that story visible when it held Till himself in September 1955—a moment made into a memorial and a call-to-action through the images in Jet magazine. Today, it is the one object in the entire museum that no one is allowed to photograph. It may not be distorted or exploited. It is a sacred relic that calls us to remember so many lives cut short by race-based violence, and to recognize the importance of remembering that history with clarity.
If Emmett Till were 80 years old today, what is the life that he would have led?
To learn more about the enduring legacy of Emmett Till, join Dr. Alexander for the Mellon Foundation’s virtual roundtable discussion, “Let the People See What They Did to My Boy”: Commemorating Emmett Till for Future Generations
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