Getting the News of Emmett Till's Death
ED GORDON, host:
Yesterday, Till's relatives commemorated the 50th anniversary of his murder by placing a wreath on his grave site in suburban Chicago. Today commentator Clarence Page recalls how he learned the news of this shocking murder many years ago.
I didn't hear about Emmett Till's death right away. I was eight years old, and while black folks nationwide were talking about the grisly news, my family elders didn't want my young ears to be tarnished by it. I only heard murmurings at first, a mixture of sadness and anger for the 14-year-old black youth from Chicago. I learned the details from my childhood friends passing around the now historic copy of Jet magazine. The brave little pocket-sized weekly ran photos of Emmett Till, including one lying in his coffin in Chicago, his body neatly dressed in a proper suit and necktie and his light-brown face horribly beaten, smashed beyond recognition.
Emmett Till had been killed, beaten to death and thrown into a river for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a tiny town called Money, Mississippi. The brutal, racially tinged cruelty of it all, at a time when Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color line and as the Supreme Court had declared racially segregated school to be unconstitutional, instantly became a defining moment in my young life and the lives of other African-Americans nationwide. Emmett Till's murder stands out among the thousands of lynchings that preceded it because of his courageous mother's decision to leave his casket lid open. She wanted the world to see what hatred had done to her only child. With that bold act, Mamie Till-Mobley embedded her son's memory in the minds of our generation. If racists would do this to a 14-year-old boy, we said, what will they do to the rest of us?
Thousands of mourners queued up to view his body on Chicago's South Side. Bob Dylan would write a protest song. Till's martyrdom helped launch a historic civil rights movement. A hundred days after his death, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her defiance ignited a decade of civil rights protests. She told reporters that her courage came from thinking about Emmett Till.
An all-white jury acquitted two white Mississippi men in a sham trial. A year later, both confessed for a $4,000 fee in a magazine interview. Emmett Till's mother died a year before her own autobiography was published last year. There are some who would like to see the case buried with her, but to see the government warm up this cold case warms my faith in a thought from Martin Luther King. `The arc of the moral universe is long,' he said, `but it bends toward justice.'
GORDON: Clarence Page is a Washington-based syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.