'Emmett Till': A Poem of Sorrow, and Hope Farai Chideya talks with Marilyn Nelson, poet laureate of Connecticut and author an emotional narrative poem on the death of Emmett Till. Nelson explains why she wrote the poem for young adults, and how it challenges readers to speak out against modern-day injustices.

'Emmett Till': A Poem of Sorrow, and Hope

'Emmett Till': A Poem of Sorrow, and Hope

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4818586/4818651" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Web Extra: Hear Marilyn Nelson read her poem 'A Wreath for Emmett Till'

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4818586/4818627" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Cover for A Wreath for Emmett Till Houghton Mifflin Company hide caption

toggle caption
Houghton Mifflin Company

Explaining Emmett Till's murder to children in 1955 wasn't easy. Even today, it's still hard to find the right words when teaching young people about Till's brutal death.

In 1955, 14-year-old Till was visiting relatives in a small Mississippi town when he was accused of giving a white woman a "wolf whistle" outside a market. Her husband and his half-brother pulled Till from the house where he was staying, drove him to the banks of the Tallahatchie River and shot him in the head.

Despite eyewitness testimony, an all-white jury acquitted the two men of murder. Outrage over Till's death helped to mobilize the civil rights movement.

Marilyn Nelson, the poet laureate of Connecticut, has written a narrative poem, A Wreath for Emmett Till, especially for young readers.

Nelson spoke with Farai Chideya about her provocative poem, and about the lingering effect Till's murder still has had on the American psyche.

From A Wreath for Emmett Till

Emmett Till's name still catches in my throat,

like syllables waylaid in a stutterer's mouth.

A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South

to visit relatives and to be taught

the family's ways. His mother had finally bought

that White Sox cap; she'd made him swear an oath

to be careful around white folks. She'd told him the truth

of many a Mississippi anecdote:

Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase

she'd packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,

and comic books. She'd given him a note

for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,

wondered if he'd remember to brush his hair.

Her only child. A body left to bloat.

© 2005 Houghton Mifflin Company