• The Grey Squirrel

We Still March for Emmett Till

I've spent the day prepping my lesson on Emmitt Till, and my heart is heavy.

At 14, Emmett hadn't lost his baby fat, and his nickname was Bobo. The trip to Mississippi was a last-minute change of plans as he was supposed to go to Nebraska with his mother, but he begged her to let him go to Mississippi with his cousins instead. Mamie Till-Bradley was overcome with exhaustion the day before she was supposed to leave, so she decided to stay home in case Emmett came home early. She thought he would be so delighted to turn the key to their house and find his mother waiting for him. That was the only reason she was home to get the call on August 24th.

Emmett had a permanent stutter as a result of having polio when he was 6. His mother taught him to whistle to regain control of his speech when his words wouldn't form; when she heard he'd tried to buy bubblegum, she was convinced that he'd whistled to stop his stutter because he struggled the worst on the letter B.

His cousin said Emmett didn't say a word as Roy Bryant and JW Milam dragged him to their truck. His uncle pleaded for the boy and his aunt offered the two white men money to release him. They watched as the taillights faded away. By the time they dumped the body of Emmett Till, naked with a 200-lb cotton gin fan wired around his neck, into the Tallahatchie river, the truck had driven approximately a hundred miles and crossed into three different counties. When his body was discovered 3 days later, the water had dragged him across 8 miles of river bed.

His eyes were gouged out, his ear cut off, and his tongue ripped from his mouth. He had been stabbed and his femur, the strongest bone in the human body, had been broken by being jumped on repeatedly. His skull was fractured and he had been shot at close range. Willie Reed, and 18-year-old sharecropper, testified that he could hear Emmett's screams coming from Milam's barn.

The courthouse was in Sumner, MS and outsiders were greeted by a sign with the town's motto: "Sumner, a great place to raise a boy." The jury was all white men because a person had to be a registered voter to be called for jury duty and, of the 19,000 black residents in Tallahatchie County, there was not a single black registered voter.

At the trial, the Sheriff made jokes about Emmett trying to swim across the river with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck, while the defendants were allowed to play their children as witnesses testified about what they had done. Congressman Charles Coles Diggs, Jr., representing the area of Detroit, MI and the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was forced to sit in the segregated section of the courthouse and referred to by extremely offensive names.

In his closing statement, the defense attorney said if they found the white men guilty "your ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I'm sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men." The jury deliberated for only 67 minutes before finding Bryant and Milam "Not Guilty." One juror said that it only took that long because they wanted sodas to quench their thirst due to the 90-degree weather.

Emmit Till was six months younger than my dad and would be 79 years old if he were still alive. We are only one generation removed from these events.

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