Emmett Till was a child raised in love and killed by a hate he barely understood.
It’s been almost 68 years since the vacationing 14-year-old was bludgeoned, shot, wrapped in barbed wire and dumped in the Tallahatchie to vanish into the Mississippi Delta like so many Black bodies before him.
All because he whistled at a white woman, who told her husband, who told his stepbrother, who grabbed a gun. In an America of Jim Crow segregation and vicious, violent white supremacy, a wolf whistle from a 14-year-old could be a death sentence.
There are those who say—or scream at school board meetings, or legislate in statehouses—that there’s little point in teaching a chapter of history so sad, that makes white people look so bad, that was all so long ago and far away.
History is closer than we think. On April 15, Deborah Watts will talk with her neighbors in Plymouth about her cousin, Emmett Till.
“We need to know the truth of what happened,” said Watts, who was a toddler when her cousin was lynched. “You need to explore and get underneath the narrative [and] find your place in the story.”
An all-white jury let his killers go free. A few months later, they confessed to the murder in a magazine interview. His family has spent seven decades ensuring that those men didn’t get the last word.
There will be a free screening of “Till,” the 2022 film about her cousin’s short life and long legacy, at 1 p.m. at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church of Plymouth. After the movie, Watts will be on hand to answer questions.
When Till was murdered in 1955, there was hope that the shocking crime would push the federal government to pass anti-lynching legislation. When the United States finally made lynching a federal crime, it was 2022, and Emmett Till’s name was on the bill.
His name is also on a bill making its way through the Minnesota Legislature right now. The Emmett Louis Till Victims Recovery Program would fund $500,000 worth of health and wellness grants that benefit victims of historical trauma, their families and their heirs. Emmett Till’s legacy is with us still.
Sharing that legacy is a labor of love for Watts and her family, through the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation they founded together. The family brought “our pain and our grief and our disappointment” to the work, Watts said. “And our hope.”
But it’s Emmett’s name we remember, his movie we watch, his legacy written across laws and stories and scholarships.
We remember because his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley wouldn’t let us forget.
She forced herself to look at what they’d done to the body of her only child and refused to let the nation look away. She insisted on an open-casket funeral and allowed journalists to share images around the globe. She risked her life to testify at his murder trial, and devoted the rest of her days to ensuring his death would not be the end of his legacy.
The Till family, who could only watch as the legal system let his killers walk free, have thrown their arms around other families grieving children lost to police violence.
“We just don’t stop at the tragedy,” Watts said. “Behind the scenes, we are holding each other up and trying to ensure the legacy of our loved ones. To ensure their deaths are not in vain.”
They’ve never given up hope that someone will answer for Emmett’s death. Watts and her daughter once dug through a courthouse basement to find the arrest warrant that had never been served to the white shopkeeper, Carolyn Bryant, for her role in the lynching.
“Are we a typical family out of Plymouth, Minnesota? No,” Watts said with a laugh. “Are we standing on the steps of the Capitol in Mississippi demanding justice? Yes.”
If you don’t face what happened to Emmett Till, you’ll miss the resilience and courage of his mother and all the others who fought and bled for civil rights. You won’t see everything America gained after we lost him. You won’t see all the work still left to do.
“We’re sitting here saying, ‘This is the history and here’s where we are today,'” Watts said. “Let’s talk about what we can do going forward.”