I never heard of Emmett Till when I was a kid. There was no mention of him in my school, there were no documentaries that I saw, no 60 Minutes stories. I later found a Bob Dylan song about him on a bootleg, a live recording that didn’t sound like he spent too much time on it. A ripped from the headlines kind of song that sounds like House of the Rising Sun. I admire the effort but it’s not his best.
I honestly don’t remember when this story came to my attention. It took place more than ten years before I was born and by the time I started thinking about things like injustice and social equality, it was more than thirty years after the fact. But if I’ve known this story for twenty or twenty-five years now, I can’t shake it. It makes me physically sick just writing about it. Always just on the verge of tears if I think about it too much.
Emmett Till was a 14 year old black child from Chicago who was visiting some relatives in Mississippi in 1955. Small town, Mississippi. He was big for his age and had a big personality. His mother, his single mother, warned him that white people in Mississippi would not regard his playfulness with the same tolerance as they may have in Chicago. She told him to keep quiet and be nothing but polite.
One day, with his cousins, Emmett went into a rural general store for some candy and as the story goes, he whistled or cat-called at the 21 year old white woman behind the counter. Some claim he had a breathing problem and didn’t whistle at all. Somehow, this woman’s husband and his half-brother decided they needed retribution and a few nights later they kidnapped the fourteen year old boy and took him to a barn where they beat him. They beat him to death. Then they tied him to a cotton gin with wire and sunk him in the Talahatchie River.
His body surfaced a few days later. His mother, with more courage than I can imagine, insisted that her beautiful boy be laid in an open casket, in Chicago, with a face that didn’t look human. She wanted the world to see what the beasts had done to her son. Tens of thousands of people saw his body in person and the images were published all across the world. American barbarism. I’ve resisted posting the picture because it’s so gruesome. Be warned.
The murderers were acquitted by their townspeople, in part because the judge said there was no way to identify the body as Emmett Till because the corpse was beyond recognition. Months later, the murderers sold their story to a magazine, admitting their guilt without risk of reprisal because of double jeopardy laws. The young white woman from the store only recently admitted she’d made the whole story up. Think about that for a second before you continue.
When I was younger, I thought lynching meant hanging. Now I understand that it’s more than that. This lynching took place over sixty years ago and is widely regarded as a spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat a few months later. But sixty odd years on, it hasn’t stopped. The lynching continues. When I was trying to write a song about this, it became apparent that if I were to try to include a good deal of these lynchings, even in just the last few years, it would be a ten minute song. It’s oppressive, the weight of it.
The next time you hear a news story about an unarmed black man or woman who is killed and no one goes to jail for it, remember that Emmett Till and any one of these kids could have been your son or daughter and until we realise that, it will never stop. Justice belongs to all of us or to none of us.
This is the song.