My mother was born in Clarksdale, Miss., in the heart of the Mississippi Delta — a town not far from where Emmett was murdered — but lived from the age of 6 months in Chicago. Born in the rural South, definitively raised as a child of the urban North much like Emmett. Ma was the first to admit she had a pretty charmed, sheltered life and did not experience overt racism in Chicago. She attended integrated schools, moved about the city freely. Although her early years were spent in a tenement that still stands on 40th and Cottage Grove, in what was then, and still is, Chicago’s “Black Belt,” my family quickly acquired better housing and always lived fairly well.
They were living the Great Migration dream of good jobs, good housing, good schools. My uncles even owned a grocery store. This was her reality, her girlhood and young womanhood. My mother was never sent “down South” in the summer, and the relatives with whom she lived never spoke about their lives in the Mississippi Delta — except to say that they had no interest in returning. “Down South” to my mother was a nebulous, far-in-the-distance concept. I suspect it was the same for Emmett — until it wasn’t. An ordinary summer, until it wasn’t.
Viewing Emmett’s body and hearing the violent story of his murder made her realize that what she was reading in the Chicago Defender and seeing in bits and pieces on the TV news about protests in the South wasn’t so nebulous after all. For the first time in her life, and the lives of most of her Chicago-reared friends, “Down South” was real.
Ma was also struck by the fact that Emmett had just celebrated his 14th birthday on July 25 — a Leo just like she was, she would note — and that their birthdays were just two weeks apart.
“I looked at him and thought, ‘That could have been my little brother’,” she told me.
My mother died in 2000, and both she and Emmett are buried at the historic, and now infamous, Burr Oak Cemetery. I don’t go to the cemetery anymore, but for years when I did, I always visited and said a prayer at his grave, too. Without fail.
I think of Emmett Till not just as the touchstone for the modern civil rights movement but also as a son of Chicago — as family. Somebody who could have been my uncle or my big cousin. As the nation commemorates the March on Washington August 28, I’ll also be thinking of Emmett Till.
Sabrina L. Miller is a freelance writer living in Chicago.