Remembering Emmett Till 137 Times

Not to denigrate the contribution Rosa Parks made to civil rights by refusing to relinquish her seat for a white person on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus in December of 1955, but the truth is, in spite of what’s always taught in our history books, her brave act was not what started the movement that would forever change America.

That honor goes to Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, who was, by all accounts, an extraordinary woman.

When her son was brutally killed in Money, Mississippi (for committing the “crime” of flirting with a white woman) and his disfigured corpse was shipped back to her in Chicago, everyone involved attempted to dissuade her from having an open casket funeral. However, she strenuously resisted, saying, “I want the whole world to see what they did to my baby,” and the horrific, shocking image of her son in his casket was broadcast around the world. Emmett’s funeral was held in late August of 1955, and the worldwide outrage it caused is what really ignited the modern day civil rights movement.

The families of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams (who are already being maligned as dangerous outlaws who got exactly what they deserved) should have the courage to do what Mamie Till did: Have open casket funerals … so the world can see what kind of damage 137 bullets can do to two human bodies.

Of course both families will be subjected to great pressure — similar to the pressure that was brought to bear on Mamie Till — to not have open casket funerals. In America we like things neat and pretty … even death. We don’t want to be “disturbed” by gruesome visages or memories. That’s why it’s more comfortable for history books to say the civil rights movement was started by the courageous action of Rosa Parks, and not by the cowardly actions of avowed racists who went unpunished for the killing.

When the smoke from the gunshots eventually clears, the impetus will be to make a memorial out of the killing spot where two died … with lots and lots of stuffed animals. We black folks are real good at that, memorializing killings … no matter who pulled the trigger(s).

At this juncture too many facts remain outstanding to arrive at any conclusions regarding how the two died; all we know is that two people are dead and their corpses are not pretty. But, maybe, just maybe, we need to look death in the face — as Mamie Till did — and see if that brings about any change.