In the summer of 1955, we first learned of young Emmett Till. The 14-year-old from Chicago had been visiting his great-uncle in the rural town of Money, Mississippi. Venturing into town, he made a small purchase in the family-owned Bryant grocery store. While the details are in dispute, Emmett was said to have flirted with the 21-year-old white woman proprietor. In the Jim Crow South, that turned out to be a fatal error. A few days later, he was kidnapped from his uncle’s home. Later in the week, his mutilated and bloated body was found in the Tallahatchie River.
At his funeral back in Chicago, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on an open casket. The grisly image of Emmett’s mutilated corpse was first carried in Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender. As it reached a mainstream audience, the image shocked the conscience of the nation.
In December of that same year, Rosa Parks was seated on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and, when requested to move back to accommodate a white passenger, she refused. Recalling the incident in later years, Parks said, “I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn’t go back.” With the recruitment of a young black Montgomery preacher to lead it, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was underway and it ignited the civil rights movement.
But a half-century later, the movement once led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow pastors in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had stalled. That is, until we were confronted with a new image — the heartbreaking image of the life of George Floyd being snuffed out under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman (“George Floyd, whose death energized a movement, to be buried next to his mother in a private funeral,” June 9).
Just as the lynching of Emmett Till led to a cascade of events culminating in the civil rights laws of the 1960s, one must hope that the great outpouring of grief over the death of George Floyd, coming on the heels of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others, will have a lasting legacy. The protests and marches across the nation and the globe must give tangible meaning to “Black Lives Matter.”
Josef Nathanson, Baltimore
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