Remembering Emmett Till

The anniversary of the March on Washington shares a sad but significant date in history.

Emmett Till
Emmett Till KTHV Screenshot

(The Root) — The approaching 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is a reminder of another significant anniversary — the 58th anniversary of the death of Emmett Till. I don’t know how many of my peers who grew up in Chicago had parents who told them stories about that time, but for my mother — named Elizabeth but called Bess in her girlhood — the incident profoundly changed her.

She had just graduated from Parker High School in 1955 and had recently celebrated her 18th birthday, three weeks before Emmett’s brutal and shocking murder August 28 while he was visiting relatives “down South” in Money, Miss. It had been a regular, hot, Chicago summer until that point. My mother was enrolled at Wilson Junior College and enjoying her last few weeks of freedom with friends before school started.

And then, Emmett.

Like many black Chicagoans, my mother, my aunt, Big Mama, who raised her, and other members of our family lined up outside A.A. Rayner funeral home on Chicago’s South Side to view his mutilated body. She said they stood out there for hours in the heat, in silence.

As they got closer to the inside of the funeral home, Ma said she kept hearing what sounded like bumps or thuds on the ground. As she got even closer and could actually see what was going on, she realized the bumps and thuds she was hearing were actually women hitting the ground from passing out after seeing Emmett Till’s bloated and mutilated body.

Their fainting probably was also brought on from standing for hours in the heat, but undoubtedly the sheer shock (and, according to my mother, the smell) of young Emmett took its toll.

Ma, good AME church girl that she was, said she steeled herself as she inched closer to the casket because she didn’t want to “make a scene” by passing out. She said she remembered trembling as she drew closer to the casket, and that the wails of mourners — stoic and silent in their waiting — were now fully unleashed. Ma didn’t faint. She didn’t even cry. She held her breath, said a prayer, paid her respects and moved along. But the minute she exited the funeral home, she said, she became ill. There was no way to keep inside the horror of what she’d just seen.