Only we haven't remembered him. Not officially. Emmett Till is no more than a footnote in American history.
In several important history books his is just a name on a list of Negroes lynched in Mississippi during the 1950s. IR14p,9p9In other books he's not mentioned at all.But Emmett Till's death was avenged, according to Clenora F. Hudson, a professor of black studies and literature from Texas, whose doctoral dissertation is the most comprehensive study of Till's case to date.
Hudson says the murder of this child was the spark which ignited the civil rights movement.
In a speech at the University of Utah last week (part of Black Awareness Month) she explained the significance of Till's death to a generation too young to remember it.
Hudson reminded her audience that on May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education told America to integrate its schools with "reasonable speed." On Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.
Historians usually recognize one of those two dates as the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States, Hudson says. "Historians have failed to record the significance of what happened on Aug. 28, 1955."
It was a date that changed her childhood and changed the lives of all the young black people who were so active in the movement, she says.
On that date, at 2:30 a.m., two white men kidnapped Emmett Till from his uncle's home in Money, Miss., and murdered him. They beat him, gouged out one eye, shot him, and then, strangling him with barbed wire, they tied an anvil to his neck and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Till's crime was whistling at one of their wives.
"You see Emmett was from Chicago," says Hudson. He was only in Mississippi visiting his cousins. They were teenage boys, too. And he wanted to impress them. His wolf whistle was the kind of "mannish" dumb thing that adolescent boys do, says Hudson. "He didn't know black boys in the South weren't allowed a rite of passage."
As soon as he whistled at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, his cousins told him he was dead. Emmett tried to laugh it off. But that night he asked his Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Moses to let him go home. He had a round-trip train ticket. Suddenly he wasn't feeling mannish. He wanted to go home to his mother, Mamie Bradley. She was a widow. He was her only child. She was probably missing him, too.
Elizabeth Wright prayed about it. She decided God would protect her nephew, and he should finish out his visit, and mind his manners from now on.
Nothing happened for several days, but only because Carolyn's husband Roy was out of town. When Roy Bryant returned he spoke to his half-brother, John William Milam. Together, they came for Emmett.
A black man walking through the fields early that Sunday morning heard Emmett being tortured. Hudson says the boy was screaming for mercy and crying for his mother.
Emmett's body was found three days later.
Mississippi authorities quickly arranged a quiet funeral, before his mother could get there. But the mayor of Chicago stopped them. It seems that black labor union leaders from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were able to talk to other labor leaders who had the ear of Mayor Richard Daley.
Daley demanded the body. It came, accompanied by Emmett's uncle Moses Wright. It came in a wooden coffin sealed with a "Do Not Open" sign. Moses Wright had promised the white men who gave him that coffin that Mamie would not open it.
"Nonsense," said union leaders. "Mrs. Bradley paid $750 to have her son brought home. For all we know there isn't even a body in that coffin. She deserves to open it."
What they saw was horrible. Emmett's head was swollen to twice it's normal size. His tongue was protruding. His eye was gone. "And that bloated face is the ugliness of American racism," says Clenora Hudson.
She says, "Emmett Till raised the conciousness of many Americans about the plight of blacks in the deep South. His death undermined the Northern blacks' false sense of security."
"I think that it was because Emmett was a child that the Till case became a unifying cause. The black community rallied to demand justice," says Hudson.
Before Emmett was buried, 600,000 people came to look into his glass-covered coffin. Newspaper photographers recorded the viewing from behind the coffin, sparing readers Emmett's face but capturing the horror and grief on the faces in the crowd.
Hudson believes the state of Mississippi was shamed into holding a trial - the first time a white man had ever been tried for the murder of a black in that state.
Even though the body was identified by his mother and was wearing a ring engraved with the initials of Emmett Till's father, the all-male, all-white jury couldn't see sufficient proof that it was his body. Bryant and Milam were acquited of murder and kidnapping.
Mayor Daley sent a letter of protest to President Eisenhower. Mamie Bradley began giving speeches. The NAACP saw a surge of donations.
In December, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, blacks found a moral cause to rally behind. Busing was a much more dignified cause from which to launch a civil rights protest than was the ugly murder of a boy who had insulted a white woman.
Still, Hudson says, it was the outrage over Till's murder they were expressing in marches and demonstrations. It was Emmett Till's death that taught blacks they'd been waiting too passively for too long. One hundred years since slavery ended - and they still couldn't even protect their children.
"What happened on that Montgomery bus was only three months after Emmett's murder. Do you think by this time anyone had been able to forget his face?" Hudson asks.
As part of her doctoral research, historian Clenora Hudson interviewed people who never met Emmett Till but who remember him, nontheless. At the University of Utah last week, she presented their memories. Till may not mean much to most historians but he will never be forgotten by people of every color who were teenagers themselves when he was killed.
- "The real horror is that these were regular citizens, the men that killed him . . . "
- "When I think about the Nazis and the wholesale slaughter of American Indians, I realize we were no different . . . "
- "Even today when I hear his name I think of meaness and low-downess."
- "His death brought parameters to my life. It girded me up for the struggle of the black people."
- "At first I was just afraid. It was not until after I left the South that I realized the sadness of it all. The sadness. My grandmother had said to me, `Boy, you better not whistle anymore.' I might be heard by the wrong ears. So my brother - he used to whistle all the time, he was so happy - and I stopped whistling. The sadness of that will never leave me."