Remembering Emmett Till

Sabrina L. Miller
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.

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.

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