In this new feature on the blog, I will compile news stories for younger readers (2nd-7th grade). Not only will stories that are relevant to kids’ lives be featured, but also current national and world news presented with context and language to help young readers engage with and understand the day’s biggest stories. Stories that young people and their parents may want to read and discuss together, due to sensitive subject matter, will be flagged as such, but I will not attempt to shield kids from tougher (whether scary, complicated, sad, etc.) news stories, if they are important.
60th Anniversary of Emmett Till’s Death Resonates with Current Civil Rights Events
(Parental Guidance Suggested: Racial Violence)
On August 28, 1955, 60 years ago today, 14 year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped by Roy Bryant and his brother J.W. Milam. The men cruelly beat Till, and shot him. Three days later, Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River. Why did they do this? On August 24th, Till, who was visiting cousins in Money, Mississippi, bragged that his girlfriend back home in Chicago was white. The local boys he was out with didn’t believe him and dared him to ask a white store clerk, Carolyn Bryant, out on a date. Till allegedly flirted with and whistled at Bryant, although friends and family said that Till often whistled to overcome his stuttering. Whatever happened, Bryant was offended by it, and complained to her husband, Roy Bryant, when he returned home from a trip a few days later.
For his funeral, Till’s mother worked hard to make sure her son’s body made it back to Chicago for burial, and wasn’t buried in Mississippi. Usually, when a person is very badly hurt, or their body is in bad condition, a closed casket funeral is held. Till’s body was swollen and terribly damaged, but Mamie Till had an open casket funeral so that people had to look at what was done to her son. It was shocking. Tens of thousands of people came to see Till at his wake, and photographs were published by Jet Magazine and The Chicago Defender. Outrage over the incident became a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and Mamie Till became an important person in the fight for equality.
Till grew up in a working class suburb in Chicago, and was perhaps unprepared for the Jim Crow racism in the South. His mother, Mamie Till, warned him “to be very careful… to humble himself to the extent of getting down on his knees” (Time). Jim Crow is the name given for the laws and rules that kept black people and white people separate, and black people disadvantaged. (For example, in segregated schools, schools for African American children usually had fewer resources and used old, sometimes out-dated textbooks that the white schools were done with.)
It is this very system of racism that allowed the men who killed Till to get away with it. Because they could not register to vote, black people could not serve on juries either. When the case went to trial, an all white jury found the two men who killed Emmett Till not guilty. They later publicly admitted that they did it, and showed no remorse.
Emmett Till’s story still has meaning and importance today, not just because of how it outraged and motivated people in 1955, but also in light of the killing of young black men and boys over the last few years. The shootings of Trayvon Martin (17), Michael Brown (18), and Tamir Rice (12) sparked public protests and heated debate about violence, racial prejudice, and the high stakes for young African Americans if they are even just perceived as doing something wrong by the wrong person.
In the events commemorating Emmett Till’s life and death today, the Till family will include the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Today’s events include a ceremony at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, the church where Till’s funeral was held, a motorcade to the grave sites of Till and his mother in Burr Oak Cemetary, and a memorial dinner in Chicago. According to Till’s cousin, the family decided on public events to mark the anniversary, “because of the climate of murder, the climate of injustice, in the present time” (Chicago Tribune). In Mississippi, movie screenings and public events will be held in memorial of Till.
Can you name the 5Ws of this story? (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) If you have questions, ask them in the comments below.
Want to learn more? These links can give more context, information, and reflection on the stories above.
Remembering Emmett Till – New York Times
History Channel: The Death of Emmett Till (Video)
Emmett Till’s Casket Goes to the Smithsonian
The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad Of Emmett Till – a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks