Piece 8: The Blood of Emmett Till

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Last week, I asked you how you would fulfill your role within the larger movement for justice in this country. For me, in addition to working through anxiety and fear to write this series on my own corner of the internet, I will continue drawing attention to advocacy groups and marginalized voices. I’ve also been fortunate to join with like-minded community groups recently – one to start a Be the Bridge group and the other to erect a historical marker commemorating a troubling aspect of our community’s history.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

When I was a kid, having a summer birthday was rough. There was no opportunity to hand out invitations at school. And even if my parents had my friends’ parents’ phone numbers, there was a huge chance my friends were out of town and therefore unable to come celebrate with me. As a July baby, one thing I did to try and feel a sense of specialness when my birthday came around, was to flip to the back of Seventeen Magazine for horoscopes and celebrity birthdays. I would then try to manufacture emotional connections to the actors who shared my birth month, so I could feel cooler by birthday association.

Then a few years ago, I realized that I had an iconic birthday buddy: the slain Emmett Till, whose murder catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up knowing some things about Till’s story. I knew that as a teen visiting his family in the South one summer, he supposedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store; that when the woman’s husband found out, he got a group of men together to forcibly take Till from his family’s home and kill him; that killing him wasn’t enough; that the men weighed his body down and then threw it into a river; that Till’s body was so mutilated that his own mother could not at first identify him as her child; that Till’s mother decided to have an open-casket funeral so that people could see what had been done to her son; that Jet magazine ran a spread featuring Till’s story and funeral.

Over all this, I knew of course that black people – even children – could not truly be free around white people without being punished.

What I did not know when I was growing up, was that Emmett Till and I shared a birthday. I did not know the woman who accused him of whistling at her – the accusation that led to his murder – later recanted the story of what happened in the store that day. I did not know that two men were tried and acquitted of Till’s murder, that they later confessed to their heinous crime in Look magazine for a fee of $4,000 because they knew they would not be tried again due to double jeopardy. I did not know that in time, a marker in Till’s memory would be erected, only to be tossed into a river and shot at, ultimately replaced at least three times.

I learned most of these facts a few summers ago, when I listened to this week’s suggested resource: The Blood of Emmett Till. In this book, Timothy B. Tyson details eyewitness accounts, interviews, and public records to piece together the truth of Emmett Till’s murder. The depth and breadth of Till’s case definitively illustrate how fatal white supremacy can be for black boys in America. The mere suggestion that a black teen whistled at a white woman was enough for Till to be pulled from the bed where he slept next to his cousin and brutally beaten and killed. 

Luvvie Ajayi Jones touches on this insidious phenomenon in this week’s second suggested resource: “About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women’s Tears.” Jones’ blog post sets forth the idea that white tears can be a matter of life and death for black Americans. While Jones’ blog post draws on personal anecdotes, data does indeed bear out her thesis. The third resource I will suggest this week contains such data: Pushout, a book – and soon-to-be-released documentary – which closely examines how black girls are treated in schools. Dr. Monique Morris traces over-representation of black girls in the juvenile justice system, lack of consideration of students’ home circumstances, and the prevalence of vilifying black girls for behaviors for which girls of other ethnicities are not punished. 

All three of this week’s suggestions shine a bright light on disparities in the way our culture treats black and white people. In many ways, the dominant white American culture seemingly must always be protected and upheld,even at the expense of black autonomy and sometimes, like in the case of Emmett Till, at the expense of black life itself. I do not suggest taking on all three resources this week. Choose what you are able to devote time to, and what interests you most. For me, with Till being my birthday buddy, I’m always interested in facts about his life and death. For teachers who are looking for ways to do better for students of color in their classroom, Pushout may be a more logical choice. If time is short, you may only have time to read Luvvie’s blog post. Whichever resource(s) you choose to engage with this week, I hope you’ll consider these questions as you read:

  • When have I witnessed white tears used as a weapon against people of color?
  • In my personal relationships, how have I coerced people of color to change their conduct to suit my own ideals of propriety?
  • When my white friends complain about people of color in their lives, do I question their perception and bias, or do I accept them as tacit truth because my friends’ perception confirms my own bias?
  • Do I have different behavioral expectations of black children than white children?
  • Are my reactions to children’s behavior different – based on their race – even if their behavior is the same?

This week’s work is emotionally heavy. But I hope that as you exhale and peruse these resources to select one, that you will remember this work is necessary. Be kind with yourself even as you confront hard truths, and I’ll see you here again next week. We’ll keep doing this hard emotional work to actively pursue peace, one piece at a time.

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