MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- The Civil Rights Movement was a fire that started with multiple sparks — none more haunting than the murder and mutilation of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in August 1955.
As the nation celebrates significant Movement milestones this year, the 14-year-old boy— and his mother — are being recognized as two of its original heroes. We now understand that their sacrifices, four months before the Montgomery bus boycott, sickened and motivated civil rights pioneers. The tremors of his death are felt today.
The Southern Poverty Law Center honors the Tills and their legacy in a new retrospective of stories, reflections and classroom lessons on Tolerance.org, and a new documentary film to debut October 23 at the opening of the Civil Rights Memorial Center here.
Emmett Till's story survived because of his mother, Mamie Till, and one black-and-white photograph of his bludgeoned corpse in a casket. At his funeral, he was a boy without a face.
But on the white silk lining above his body, Mrs. Till pinned photos of the son she'd raised: a bright-eyed jokester, a lover of hats, a sometime stuttering, smart-talking teen coming into manhood.
"People had to face my son," she later wrote. "People had to face themselves."
This is the lasting power of Emmett Till. While we remember Rosa Parks for her dignified courage, and Martin Luther King for his nonviolent leadership, Till reminds us of our darkest side. His death was a lynching. He became the face of American terrorism against its black citizens.
When Mamie Till, amidst unfathomable grief, opened her son's casket, she marked an end to a century of lynchings that had killed 5,000 people, including 500 in Mississippi. Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks both cried at the sight of Emmett's face. Black mothers everywhere who had endured lifetimes of indignities were moved to activism. Soon, no lynching — and there would be dozens more into the 1990s — went unnoticed.
Emmett Till, had he lived, would be 64, near retirement. From his casket he speaks to us powerfully of disappeared souls, brutality and unresolved justice.
These issues are examined on Teaching Tolerance. Because of the 50th anniversary of his murder, a reopened criminal case and exhumation, Emmett Till is once again in the news. The website package includes a guide for talking to children about the Till case.
Faces in the Water, the film to be featured in the new Civil Rights Memorial Center, derives its central theme from the Till case.
"Because of his mother, Emmett Till did not disappear beneath the waters of a turgid river in Mississippi," said Jim Carrier, the film's writer and narrator. "The Civil Rights Memorial preserves not only his name and story, but that of 39 other civil rights martyrs. Were it not for the Memorial, most of these faces would have been lost to history."
Producer Todd Gipstein and sound designer Arklay King mixed historic photos and re-created scenes with dramatic video shots of the Maya Lin-designed monument. It is accompanied by an original soundtrack featuring the song "Faces in the Water," composed by Greg McPherson and sung by Kate Campbell.