The year is 1955. I'm sure many of you can remember it as if it were yesterday. That was the year the first McDonald's was erected, the first cans of Coca-Cola were sold and rock 'n' roll music continued to grow in popularity with artists like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and the Comets. |
This was the year that seat belts became mandatory in all new cars, In God We Trust was added to all U.S. paper currency, and Disneyland opened in California. I'm sure many of you can reflect back to an era that was only 55 years ago and smile because of the good that was happening around you, but in 1955 especially in the southern states of America, these may not have been remembered as the good ole days.
Emmett Till was 14 when he went to visit family in South. Before getting on the bus, his mother Mamie said to him, "Be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly."
Emmet and his cousin Curtis, who was also visiting from Chicago, were playing with other youth outside a local grocery store. No one knows how it all really went down; some say it was a dare and others say he just did it.
Emmet went up to a 21-year-old cashier named Carolyn Bryant and tried to flirt with her. In trial Mrs. Bryant said that Emmet said, "Don't be afraid of me, baby. I've been with white girls before." The youths went on after the incident and thought nothing of it.
When word got around of what Emmet did, his relatives suggested that he get out of town. Unfortunately, it did not happen quick enough.
Ron Bryant, Carolyn's husband, and his half-brother Milam tracked Emmet down and he was taken from his uncle's cabin in the middle of the night to a barn where he was beaten, had an eye gouged out, and was eventually shot in the head because they were tired of hearing him cry. Tired of hearing a 14-year-old boy cry after he had been beaten and had an eye gouged out?
The two men then tied a cotton gin fan around Emmet's neck with barbed wire and threw his body into a nearby river. A jury of 12 white men acquitted the two and a year later they admitted to killing him knowing that they could not be tried twice for the same crime.
Mamie Till demanded that her son's body be sent back to Chicago, although the state did not allow for an open casket, Mrs. Till said that she wanted to show the world the brutality of her son's killing and so it was. Tens of thousands of people came to the funeral and many pictures were taken so that the world could see what happened to this young man.
Bob Dylan wrote a song about it and 100 days later Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus sparking the civil rights movement.
The story that I just shared really happened, and it is a story that I never knew existed until a student named David Etheridge brought it to my attention. He said, "Black History is a part of American history, and if you are an American, this is a part of your history too."
As you sit and let this story sink in, do not become angry for that is not my intent. What I want you, the reader, to realize is that this is just one of thousands of stories of murder that happened to so many black Americans in the South and I hope that this story can be an example of what can happen when hate and ignorance combine with a false thought of superiority of one group of human beings over another.
Greg Aguilar, director of multicultural services at Augustana College, lives in East Moline.