Emmett Till Still Matters

What are the chances that the birthday of the late King of Pop, the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history and the anniversary of the death of civil rights icon Emmett Till would occur on the same weekend?

Most would say, slim to none.

Well the unlikely has occurred and three of the most monumental events in American history are being remembered this weekend. The birth of Michael Jackson, a legend and an icon has overshadowed the others because of the sudden nature of his death and the tragic circumstances surrounding it. Hurricane Katrina is getting some play in the media, but the recent death of the Lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, has been at the top of the news cycle.

The anniversary of the death of Emmett Till has been a blip on the radar screen, save the announcement that his casket will become a part of the Smithsonian collection. Yes, the casket that was discarded along with many others in a Chicago cemetery now has a final resting place. Ironically, the reckless regard with which Till’s casket has been treated is reflective of how his memory and legacy has been treated by the media.

This is a young boy who was killed for whistling at a white woman, allegedly. He was murdered by grown men who dared leave his disfigured body to rot in the Tallahatchie river with a 70 pound cotton gin fan tied to his body with barbed wire. It was Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, who had enough of black boys being murdered because of the color of their skin that insisted that her son’s body be shown to the world, so that people could truly see the face of racism.

It is interesting that on the 54th anniversary of Emmett Till’s senseless death, America is fixated on everything but the memory of this black boy. Funny, we can find how all things and topics relate to President Obama in the media, but not Emmett Till.

The same venom that has been spewed at President Obama is the same venom that put Emmett Till in the ground at 14 years of age and left a city full of poor people, most of whom were black, to die fifty years later.

The disfigured body of Emmett Till speaks to the disfigured face of Michael Jackson, a young, black man destroyed by racism in America in terms of beauty ideals. A young boy from Chicago gave racism a face, insisting that Americans look in the mirror and make some hard discoveries. Michael Jackson’s classic “Man in the Mirror” reflects that very sentiment.

It was Till’s tragic death that put into motion a civil rights movement that the United States had not seen previously. It was the death of this young boy that gave life to the possibility of a Black man becoming President of the United States, also from Chicago.

Till’s ravaged body reflected how black bodies — black lives were discarded during the Hurricane Katrina fiasco —left to rot in a city under water.

Michael Jackson, the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and Emmett Till have a shared legacy. Leave some space in your heart and your mind for Emmett Till this weekend.

Nsenga Burton, Ph.D. is managing editor of TheLoop21.com, where this article originally appeared. She is a cultural critic for Creative Loafing, writes the Pop Culture blog Tune N and is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College.

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One Response to “Emmett Till Still Matters”

  1. Harry MacLean Says:

    It is truly stunning how Emmett Till seemed to drop out of American history for so many years. I’ve heard history college professors say that their students think that the civil rights movement started with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Books, plays, and documentaries came out a few years ago to memorialize the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, but we cannot be sure that his memory will not fade once again in this rapid-paced technological world.


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