Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of my mom and her sisters sitting around the kitchen table on hot summer nights, talking about everyone and everything.
They’d talk about people they’d grown up with and the latest news (and hairdos) in Ebony, Jet, and Essence magazines. They’d talk about the racism and sexism in the schools and at their jobs, and how I — and my knuckleheaded siblings and cousins — had been cutting up. But what I looked forward to most was when they’d get to reminiscing about their childhoods.
Sometimes when they talked about things that happened when they were kids, the conversation turned to the killing of Emmett Till.
On Tuesday, March 29, President Biden signed The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, named after the 14-year-old killed on August 28, 1955, in Money, Mississippi, for supposedly whistling at and flirting with a white woman.
This historic moment comes after more than 200 failed attempts to pass antilynching legislation over the past 120-odd years. It is an understatement to say the legislation is long overdue. But, as Chicago native Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), told Vox, “Biden’s signing of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act sends a message that America will no longer continue to ignore this shameful chapter of our history and that the government engaged in legislative failure for far too long,”
“Lynching is a clear example of one’s inhumanity toward another,” Rush said. “It’s a uniquely American act of terrorism that is motivated by hatred, and, before today, was never punished by our legal system.” A person convicted under the act can now be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.
My mom was 10-years-old at the time of Till’s brutal killing. Like Till — and many other Black Chicagoland residents whose families had come to the shores of Lake Michigan during the Great Migration — my mom and her siblings regularly went down South during the summer to visit relatives. After his killing, their desire to go to Tennessee to see family was dampened by fear.
In the 1980s, sitting in that kitchen listening to my mom and her sisters talk, I could hear the pain in their voices as if Till had been killed that very same day. I’ve often thought about how traumatic it must have been for my mother and my aunts to find out that a child — a teenage boy not much older than they were, living not too far from where they lived — had been stripped naked, brutally beaten, had an eye gouged out, and been shot in the head before being tied to a 75-pound cotton gin with barbed wire and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.
My mom remembers what it was like to see the photos of Till’s battered decomposing body in his casket on the front page of the Chicago Defender. And every time I’ve heard her mention this, she’s gotten tears in her eyes, and used the same word to describe the moment: “Terrifying.”
She and my aunts were clear that what happened to Emmett Till could happen to them, too. Growing up, I also got the same message. My grandmother would sometimes tell me that a mob of white people could snatch me up, kill me, and nothing would happen to them.
Indeed, an all-white jury had an acquittal wrapped up with a bow for the men who snatched and killed Emmett Till. Roy Bryant, the husband of Carolyn Bryant — the white woman who Till supposedly whistled at — and J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant’s half-brother, literally got away with murder and told their story in Look magazine in 1956.
When I was a kid, I had no idea that when my grandma spoke of these things, she hinted at a family history that was too painful for her to share. It wouldn’t be until 1999, months before her death, that she finally talked about her older brother going out for a walk where they lived in Georgia and ending up lynched. My mom hadn’t known before that moment that my grandma even had a brother.
Too many of us have these kinds of stories in our family history. Earlier this month, when the antilynching legislation was still on Biden’s desk, New York Amsterdam News Publisher Elinor Tatum pointed out that “According to NAACP records, 4,743 people were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968 — and there are undoubtedly more cases that weren’t documented.”
The lie of white supremacy would have America believe that if the Ku Klux Klan didn’t do it, it’s not a lynching. We’re supposed to believe that lynching is only hanging — it’s not — and that this violence is firmly in America’s past.
As Tatum pointed out, however, “We have the modern-day lynchings of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, in 1998; Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia in 2020; and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020. And who can forget the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012?”
Who indeed? Every time Black parents have “the talk” with our children, we’re haunted by the horrors of what can happen to innocent Black folk who are just living life — like Emmett Till.
Our Forever First Lady Michelle Obama wrote this week on Facebook, “In the Black community, the loss of Emmett Till remains so raw and terrifying that it still affects the way we act, think, and move through the world.”
“I can still remember my mother sitting my brother down to tell him to be careful when he ventured into different neighborhoods across Chicago to meet his friends,” Obama wrote. “These kinds of conversations are all too common in our communities—that fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and it’s finally time that we take steps to change that.”
Till would’ve been 81-years-old this coming July. “I just imagine the kinds of contributions he would have made to our society,” Congressman Rush said after Biden signed the antilynching legislation.
The activist Rev. William Barber III wrote in the New York Times last year that “The horror of his lynching inspired a generation of children who looked like Till to confront a system that denigrated their Black lives and undermined democracy. Over the next decade and a half, they grew up to be the college students and young adults who led sit-ins at lunch counters, organized Freedom Summer in Mississippi, petitioned their fellow Americans to see voting rights as a moral issue at Selma and built a Rainbow Coalition in Chicago to advocate the dignity of all poor people.”
But Barber also gave us a hard truth: “No single verdict or election can bring about the racial reckoning America needs after 400 years of building systems that have rested upon white supremacy.”
That’s also true in this moment after Biden’s signing of The Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
The legislation is not a magic wand that will transform the United States into racial Nirvana. It can’t change the reality that in some places across this country, due to so-called anti-Critical Race Theory laws, even teaching the truth in public schools about what happened to Emmett Till is no longer permitted. But this legislation is a step towards accountability and justice — and Emmett Till is owed that.
-By Liz Dwyer for Word in Black