On July 25th 2020, Emmett Till Would Have Turned 79.
(This was cross-posted at our Medium publication Students for Gun Legislation. You can read it here or click through to Medium: https://medium.com/students-for-gun-legislation/july-25th-is-emmitt-tills-birthday-he-would-be-79-cfcfee7478cd?source=friends_link&sk=bace0e7a8a033855e40813d74df72d61 )
When he was 14 years old, Emmett Till’s family got away from Chicago for a vacation with family in Mississippi.
While there, Till was accused of speaking inappropriately to a white woman in her family’s store. There is dispute about what was said, but her allegation was that he made physical advances on her. (She later recanted this part of her statement.)
Several days after the interaction, Till was abducted at gunpoint from his great-uncle’s home by members of the white woman’s family. His body was pulled from the Tallahatchee river three days later, and the coroner’s report indicated that he had been brutally beaten and had been shot multiple times. Soon thereafter, his kidnappers and murderers were acquitted of his lynching.
Horrifically, this might have been the end of the story as it was in many cases when Black men were accused of advances on white women in the South. This often included the ridiculous charge of “reckless eyeballing” — literally the act of making eye contact with a woman who finds it offensive.
However, Emmett Till’s mother insisted on having an open-casket funeral in Chicago, and Till became a visible symbol of the horror and violence of racism in the U.S.
But that’s history, right?
Many of us learned about Emmett Till in high school history, or learned of his plight through the speeches and writings of other activists.
It is tempting to think of this as ancient history, or at least a past in the United States from which we have recovered, or moved on.
But this history is not that old. If he were alive in 2020, Emmett would be turning 79. It is completely possible that he would otherwise be celebrating his birthday with his children and grandchildren, in his house in Chicago, not far from his boyhood home. Perhaps he would have something to say about today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
If he were alive today, of course there would not be a plaque commemorating his death. So there would be nothing for angry whites to shoot at so often that it had to be replaced with a bulletproof memorial instead.
If he were alive today … well, we just don’t know.
We know that Emmett Till’s death was not the first or the last in America’s history of violent racism. And as we watch the video of the murder of George Floyd, we see how easily some white men assume and attempt to exercise full control over the bodies of Black men, for offenses as small as being accused of using fake dollar bills, or reckless eyeballing, or reaching for their wallet after announcing they were reaching for their wallet.
Or how they can even shoot a 12 year old Black boy for playing with a toy gun in a public park.
White men who are so angry that they still must shoot at the memorial, believing it proves their superiority and strength. We know that it only shows their weakness, and their anger.
Today we march for justice, saying the names of so many who died needlessly, as a result of racism.
Happy birthday, Emmett Till, today we march for you.