Before the late 1980s, most academics cited the start of the Civil Rights Movement as Rosa Parks’ refusal to vacate her bus seat on Dec. 1, 1955. But 95 days earlier, the death of a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till was about to shake the movement to life.
Clenora Hudson-Weems, who was a 10-year-old girl in Memphis when Till was murdered in nearby Mississippi, would become the one to establish him as the motivation of the uprising. Her 1988 University of Iowa doctoral dissertation titled “Emmett Louis Till: The Impetus of the Modern Civil Rights Movement” was based on more than 100 interviews with people connected to Till’s story and extensive documentation.
“I was sad when I thought about it as an adult: How could they sweep that under the rug? It was an international cause célèbre back then. How could they forget the impact it had at that moment and forget it ever happened? It was strategically done. It was deliberately swept under the rug,” she said.
White people, she said, wanted to frame the beginning of the movement as an act of passive resistance rather than acknowledge the brutal reality of racism that Till’s story epitomized. Some Black people, though horrified by Till’s death, were reluctant to fully embrace him because “he should have known better” than to whistle at a white woman, Hudson-Weems said.
The resulting work, as she puts it, liberated Emmett from the stigma of being called an embarrassment to the movement and making him its catalyst. She eventually wrote four books on Till and is working on a movie about him. Now, Hudson-Weems is an English professor at the University of Missouri and creator of Africana Womanism theory.
If he had lived, Till would have been 80 years old this year. To acknowledge the anniversary of his death on Aug. 28, 1955, we asked Hudson-Weems what we can still learn from Till’s story. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What do you remember of the news when Emmett Till died?
My dad was an inspector for the Illinois Central Railroad. The labor union under A. Philip Randolph played a major role in spreading the news of Emmett Till’s lynching. I remember my Daddy coming home that day and telling my mother that’s all they’re talking about from Chicago to Memphis. They say he whistled at a white woman and they did him worse than you would do a dog.
I saw the paper that he gave her, the Jet Magazine. Oh God, it did something to me as a child. It shook me. All I wanted to do was sleep. As an adult, I realized that was my way of escaping it. The thought of Emmett Till traumatized me so that all I wanted to do was sleep.
How does Emmett’s death shape how we talk about the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement?
People don’t want something that ugly to be the beginning. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first one to refuse to give up her seat. A 15-year-old did the same thing months before, but she wasn’t the perfect symbol. And even long before that, Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat on a train. So that wasn’t a new thing, but it was more palatable. It softened the Civil Rights Movement. When you think about the murder of a child, it’s time to kick ass now! You move with great speed then, baby. They were holding down the power of the seed behind the movement. It was too powerful. If you can’t save a child, let’s fight and die. If I can’t protect my child, forget it, man. There’s nothing else to do but to give up my life in pursuit (of justice).
That makes me think about Trayvon Martin, who was only three years older than Emmett and the spark of Black Lives Matter. Do you see other parallels to the modern struggle for racial equality?
Look at what happened to Sandra Bland. She was from Chicago. When the man asked Emmett if he was the boy from Chicago, he said, “yeah.” “Yeah? You don’t say yeah to a white man in Mississippi.” You’re supposed to conduct yourself in such a way. You’re supposed to be scared of white people. But when Sandra Bland was stopped, they took her to jail and killed her and lied and said she killed herself. They can’t take anybody Black not seeing them as superior. Sandra was another one.
(Editor’s note: Texas officials ruled Sandra Bland’s death a suicide. Bland’s family, loved ones, and others immediately raised questions about the circumstances of her death and called for an independent autopsy. Investigative officials in the case also found discrepancies in some accounts jailers gave about Bland’s death. Her family later settled a wrongful death suit against the county and state.)
I often think about Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and her courageous decision to expose her son’s body to the world. What was her role in elevating his story after that?
You have to remember, she was 33 when Emmett died. They had to put her in a wheelchair to meet the train that brought his body to Chicago. But she wasn’t shy about questions about Emmett and spent her life sharing about him.
She became the mother of hundreds. She began to find peace. She would have kids at church do Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. She called them the Emmett Till Players and they would see her like a mother. It made her proud that she was doing something.
What do people often get wrong about Emmett’s story?
It took me some years to convince Mamie to stop saying he allegedly whistled. It took me some more years before she would call him the catalyst of the movement. Maybe because she was modest, I don’t know. But she did say “I wish you would say that Emmett allegedly whistled.” I said I can’t do that. All my research points to the fact that he did in fact whistle, including his cousins, including the Black guys on the front porch playing checkers.
What you would be saying is that these white people made a mistake. You’re giving them an excuse. What they did was not a mistake, it was an outright crime. Yes he whistled, so what? They did not have the right to kill him. Stop making him a criminal because he whistled.
And when people talk about when Carolyn Bryant (Donham) recanted her accusation that Emmett grabbed her by the waist, it didn’t make any difference. (Donham’s family disputes the details of the recantation.) She could have taken that to her grave. She said that during the trial three weeks after Emmett was murdered. That lie she said in court didn’t cause his death. He did whistle, but when she added that lie about him grabbing her, that was in the courtroom to further incriminate him and make herself more of the victim. Her lie had nothing to do with his murder.
What are other lessons of Emmett’s story that we should take with us into today’s movement?
First of all Sankofa: You learn from lessons of the past so we don’t repeat them. Understand what was behind it. If you don’t understand it, you’ll keep doing it.
And from there, we work toward forgiveness. That means first, you must acknowledge the wrong. Then you also must be remorseful and feel bad about it. Thirdly, you must atone for it. In other words don’t just say sorry and that’s it. You must somehow compensate for the losses of the victim. Reparations are a part of that. Fourth is redemption. God has to be in the picture. You then gain God’s forgiveness for it. And then we forgive you subsequently. Because, hey, if God can forgive you, so can I.
Correction: This story previously misstated Mamie Till’s age at the time of Emmett’s murder. She was 33 not 35.