Personal Reflection: Being Christian… in our world
BEING CHRISTIAN… IN OUR WORLD
THE PASSION OF EMMETT TILL
The Rev. Morgan S. Allen
Friday-before-last I attended an unexpected church service at the Moody Theater, with an even more unexpected preacher…Mr. David W. Chappelle. Now, if you don’t know who Dave Chappelle is, he’s a comedian, and I take no responsibility for the range of material your search of The Googles will certainly return on him. However, as he mingled the profane and the profound that night of his performance, Chappelle leveraged humor to press important and deeply-affecting social commentary.
Of his pieces, I found most compelling his recounting the story of Emmett Till and its influence on the Civil Rights movement. I will admit to you, that while I consider myself an educated person, and, moreover, one with a particular interest in stories of the Deep South, I did not know Emmett Till until that night. However – and if he will have me – I have found Till’s life and legacy a powerful companion in the days since.
An African-American, Emmett Till was born in Chicago on July 25, 1941. While Emmett was still an infant, his mother, the former Mamie Carthan, left his father, Louis Till, when Louis began physically abusing her. Not long thereafter, their child contracted polio, leaving him with a pronounced stutter. In the years following, Ms. Till worked as a civilian clerk for the United States Air Force, and she raised her affable son among extended family in Chicago’s South Side.
In the late summer of 1955, Ms. Till sent fourteen-year-old Emmett by train to visit her family in the Mississippi Delta. On August 24, he and his cousins skipped Wednesday evening church, where Emmett’s uncle, Moses Wright, was the preacher. Instead, the boys visited Bryant’s Grocery, a dime store owned and operated by a young white couple, Carolyn and Roy Bryant, who lived behind their small enterprise. Dressed for church rather than for sharecropping, Emmett’s Chicago threads clearly announced his outsider status. Cutting up, he whistled at the shop’s proprietor as she stepped onto the store’s front porch, before he and his companions scattered.
Three days later, at 2:00 A.M. on Sunday morning, Carolyn’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, approached the Wright home, demanding they produce that “boy from Chicago who had done the talking.” Simeon Wright, Till’s cousin who that night was asleep in the very same bed as his Illinois kin, recalls in his 2010 memoir that Emmett “made the men wait while he put on his socks….[and] If Dad had made a break for his guns, none of us would be alive today. I believe Bryant and Milam were prepared to kill us at the slightest provocation.” Wright’s mother offered the men money not to take “Bobo,” as the family affectionately called Emmett, but the pair ignored her pleas.
Four days later, a teenaged fisherman found the body of Emmett Till: badly beaten and shot in the head, his aggressors had sunk his body in a local river.
Rather than quietly receiving and burying the mutilated corpse of her son, Emmett’s mother made the bold decision to host for him an open-casket funeral. Scratchy news reels show long lines wrapping around the block for entry to the church to see where they had laid him, and photographers from Jet magazine captured images of the dead child, photographs set in shocking relief to the images of the cherubic youth in a bowtie and hat. Suddenly, the world’s attention turned toward Emmett’s murder.
In a 2016 article for Esquire, author John Edgar Wideman – fourteen-years-old in the same summer as Emmett – writes of these images that have haunted him since: “I saw [in that late summer…] a scary photo of a dead colored boy murdered in Money, Mississippi, whose mutilated face looked like a black bug somebody had squashed under a thumb.”
By early September, Bryant and Milam were indicted for murder, and the national media pressed into the small, county courtroom, where, during the trial, preacher Moses Wright identified his nephew’s abductors, which his son describes as “the first time in the history of [Mississippi that] a black man stood up in court and accused a white man of anything.”
After five days of proceedings, the defense’s attorney addressed the all-white, all-male jury, saying: “It is within your power to disregard all the facts, the evidence, and the law, and bring any decision you like, based upon any whim. There is no way anyone can punish you for any decision you make…You are our hope and confidence to send these defendants back to their families happy…every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to do [this].” After deliberating for less than an hour, the jury returned a verdict…of “Not Guilty.” After the announcement, one juror noted, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken [even] that long.”
Insulated by the Fifth Amendment protection against Double Jeopardy, Bryant and Milam accepted several thousand dollars the following January to sit down for an interview with Look magazine and share their side of the story. The article begins, “Disclosed here is the true account of the slaying in Mississippi of a Negro youth named Emmett Till.” As we read the Passion narrative from the Gospel of Matthew, I am going to read, without interruption, a significant portion of this article from 1956, replacing its worst epithets as our setting requires:
With Emmett in the back of their truck, J.W. and Roy “…crossed the Tallahatchie River and drove west. Their intention[, they explained,] was ‘just [to] whip him… and scare some sense into him.’ And for this chore, Big Milam [– ‘Big’ as he was known, all 6’2”, 235 pounds of him – Big] knew ‘the scariest place in the Delta.’ He had come upon it last year hunting wild geese. [See,] Over close to Rosedale, the Big River bends around under a bluff. ‘Brother, she’s a 100-foot sheer drop, and she’s a 100-foot deep after you hit.’ Big Milam’s idea was to stand him up there on that bluff, ‘whip’ him with the .45’s [they had brought home from World War II], and then shine the light…toward that water and make him think they were going to knock him in…
“Searching for this [site], they drove close to 75 miles, through Shellmound, Schlater, Doddsville, Ruleville, Cleveland, to the intersection south of Rosedale. There they turned south on Mississippi No. 1, toward the entrance to Beulah Lake. They tried several dirt and gravel roads, [and] drove along the levee[, but,] Finally, they gave up: in the darkness, Big Milam couldn’t find his bluff.
“They drove back to Milam’s house at Glendora, and by now it was 5 a.m. They had been driving nearly three hours…[Even so, Emmett] wasn’t afraid of them! He was [as] tough as they were…Milam [admits]: ‘We were never able to scare him,’ but, in back of [his property, there] is a tool house with two rooms, each about 12 feet square. [So] They took him in there and began ‘whipping’ him, first Milam, then Bryant smashing him across the head with [their pistols]…But under these blows [Emmett never cried]…
“[Till declared,]: ‘I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. [I’m good enough for white women]…My grandmother was a white woman.’
“[In response, Milam explains]: ‘Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a [black] in my life. I like [blacks] – in their place – [and] I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, [blacks] are gonna stay in their place. [Blacks] ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when [a black] gets close to mentioning…a white woman, [well] he’s tired of livin’. [And] I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we’ve got some rights.
“‘[And so] I stood there in that shed and listened to that [boy]…and I just made up my mind. “Chicago boy,” I said, “I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. I’m going to make an example of you – just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”’
“So Big Milam decided to act. He needed a weight. He tried to think of where he could get an anvil. Then he remembered a gin which had [just] installed new equipment. He had seen two men lifting a discarded fan, a metal fan three feet high and circular, used in ginning cotton.
“[At this time, Emmett] wasn’t bleeding much[, as] Pistol-whipping bruises more than it cuts. They ordered him back in the truck and headed west again. They passed through Doddsville, [and] went to the Progressive Ginning Company.
“[Milam continues]: ‘When we got to that gin, it was daylight, and I was worried for the first time. Somebody might see us and accuse us of stealing [a] fan.’ Bryant and Big Milam stood aside while [they forced Emmett to load] the fan[, weighing 74 pounds].
“They drove back to Glendora, then north toward Swan Lake and crossed the ‘new bridge’ over the Tallahatchie. At the east end of this bridge, they turned right, along a dirt road which parallels the river. After about two miles, they crossed the property of L.W. Boyce, passing near his house…[to] a lonely spot where Big Milam [hunted squirrels, and where] the river bank is steep. The truck stopped [there,] 30 yards from the water[, and Big Milam ordered Till to pick up the fan. [Emmett] staggered under its weight…and carried it to the river bank. They stood silently…hating one another.
“[Milam said to the child,] ‘Take off your clothes.’
“Slowly, Emmett pulled off his shoes, his socks. He stood up, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his pants, his shorts…He stood there, naked. It was Sunday morning, a little before 7[o’clock].
“[Big Milam said to Emmett]: ‘You still as good as I am?’
“[And Till replied]: ‘Yeah.’
“[And Big Milam asked him: ‘And are you still good enough for] white women?’
“[And Till replied]: ‘Yeah.’
“[And, at that,] Big Milam fired at [Emmett, shooting the child, the bullet landing near] his right ear. They barb-wired the gin fan to [Emmett’s] neck, rolled him into 20 feet of water[, and for] three hours that morning, there was a [big] fire in Big Milam’s back yard: [for Emmett Till’s] crepe-soled shoes were hard to burn…”
Our retelling this story on Palm Sunday is a strange and difficult experience. Every year, we remember this grieving mother and her son forced to carry the instrument of his own torture. Over and again, we recall the onlookers and the authorities who do nothing…the “good” people who offer no protest against a system that seeks sick revenge and not justice. As this story continues – so long, and so ugly – we sit uncomfortably, we stand awkwardly, and we want little more than for it all to end. And as much as we want to set this story in some distant and dusty past – imagining that we would do it differently these days…believing that we are better these days – nonetheless, we recognize its evil, for its evil is familiar to us…familiar in us…and so, retelling the story, we plead – we beg – for mercy.
On Palm Sunday, we share this strange and difficult experience so that we will not forget…so that the truth will remain in us…so that, somehow, we will see again its flickers of hope – of courage beyond the brutality; of faith beyond the fear; and of love beyond the hate – so that, when looking across the vast darkness of our own moment, we would have eyes to see, to perceive the faint, deep purple on the horizon. And, believing in a God who still seeks us despite ourselves, that we would see in that deep-purple horizon, dawn…dawn and not dusk. Yes: we tell this story that we might find our courage, and our faith, and our love… strengthened to stand with our brothers and sisters at the cross and to labor for Easter.
In the name of the crucified,