I was four years old when 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally tortured and lynched. He was just a child, a Chicago boy visiting Mississippi. His cousin, Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr., was 16. He remembers his cousin, whom they called Bobo. Bobo stuttered a lot, a result of childhood polio, and was a goof-off and a prankster.
All these years later, Reverend Parker recalls exactly what happened back then:
“He loved to have pranks, so he whistled. He gave her the wolf whistle. When he did that, we could have died. Nobody said, ‘Let’s go.’ We just made a beeline for the car. …
“He was joking. He wanted to make us laugh. When he saw that we didn’t laugh and we were scared, he’s frightened now. And we jumped in the car, and we’re going on this gravel road. And there’s a car coming behind us. Dust is flying everywhere. And someone said, ‘They’re after us, they’re after us.’ And of course, we jumped out of the car and into the cotton field, and the car went on by. …
And a few nights later, White men came for Emmett Till.
“I heard them talking at 2:30 in the morning. They said: ‘You got two boys here from Chicago.’ And, of course, when I hear this, I’m thinking — I said, man, we’re getting ready to die. I said, these people finna kill us. …
“I’m shaking like a leaf on the tree in the dark of a thousand midnights. It’s so dark, you can’t see your hand before your face. So, when they came in with the gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other, I closed my eyes to be shot. Horrible feeling. Horrible, horrible feeling. …
“Then they aroused him. And I think they told him to put his shoes on, and he wanted to put his socks on. It was just pure hell over there. Emmett had no idea who he was dealing with. He had no idea what was about to happen to him. He had no way of knowing because he didn’t know that way of life. And he left, and that’s the last time we saw him alive.”
I should have learned the story of Emmett Till in my history classes. I never did. Even in the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement appeared nightly on the television news, my high school history classes said not one word about Emmett Till, not one word about civil rights, not one word about anything connected to Black people that was more recent than the Civil War.
That’s a crime. And it’s a crime that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other history denialists are trying hard to repeat and perpetuate.
Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, knew that the ugly, deadly truth of racism must be uncovered. She insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son, saying “Let the people see what I have seen.”
People saw. The seeing and the telling of the story were fuel for the already-growing fire of the civil rights movement.
People saw. We still need to see.
This week, on what would have been Emmett Till’s 82nd birthday, President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris established a national monument to honor and forever remember Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley.
Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr., was with them at the dedication, and he said:
“When I sat with my family on the night of terror—when Emmett Till, our beloved Bobo, was taken from us, taken to be tortured and brutally murder — murdered—back then, when I was overwhelmed with terror and fear of certain death in the darkness of a thousand midnights, in a pitch-black house on what some have called Dark Fear Road. Back then in the darkness, I could never imagine a moment like this: standing in the light of wisdom, grace, and deliverance.”
History denialists don’t want us or our children to hear Emmett Till’s story. They don’t want us to hear Reverend Parker’s voice. We must fight back and insist that this history be taught and told in the full, awful light of day.
At the dedication, Vice President Kamala Harris told it well:
“The story of Emmett Till and the incredible bravery of Mamie Till-Mobley helped fuel the movement for civil rights in America, and their stories continue to inspire our collective fight for justice. …
“Our history as a nation is born of tragedy and triumph, of struggle and success. That is who we are. And as people who love our country, as patriots, we know that we must remember and teach our full history, even when it is painful—especially when it is painful.
“Today, there are those in our nation who would prefer to erase or even rewrite the ugly parts of our past; those who attempt to teach that enslaved people benefitted from slavery; those who insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, who try to divide our nation with unnecessary debates.
“Let us not be seduced into believing that somehow we will be better if we forget. We will be better if we remember. We will be stronger if we remember.
“Because we all here know: It is only by understanding and learning from our past that we can continue to work together to build a better future.”
President Biden’s speech at the dedication reiterated that truth:
“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know. We have to learn what we should know. We should know about our country. We should know everything: the good, the bad, the truth of who we are as a nation. That’s what great nations do, and we are a great nation. That’s what they do.
“For only with truth comes healing, justice, repair, and another step forward toward forming a more perfect union. We got a hell of a long way to go.”
Yes. We’ve got a hell of a long way to go.