I first learned about the lynching of Emmett Till from a racist.
My ninth-grade civics teacher Ken Phlamm told the story of the 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who, in 1955, whistled at a white woman while visiting relatives in Money, Miss.
Several nights after the incident, the woman’s husband and his brother went to Emmett’s great-uncle's house and abducted the boy. They beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River.
An all-white Mississippi jury later acquitted the men of the murder and kidnapping. But the men bragged in a national magazine days later that they did the crime. Neither served a day in jail.
Our schools have done a poor job of teaching about this shameful era of American history.
My first exposure to the concept of lynching was when my teacher told the Emmett Till story to my class. The inflection of his voice and the smug manner in which he told of how Emmett was killed struck me as odd. In his rendition, the bad guys weren’t those who kidnapped and killed the child. It was Emmett himself.
Impressionable youngsters left that class thinking that Emmett, a child our own age, just had it coming.
Of course, at age 14, I didn’t know much about my own teacher’s past. For years, allegations of racism clung to him like a cheap polyester suit on a hot day.
The Galesburg Human Relations Commission and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People both had called for his firing.
A decade earlier, he’d sparked racial strife in my hometown when he told an African American student to sit his “black ass” down.
Former Galesburg Register-Mail newspaper editor Robert Harrison covered the demonstrations that followed the 1968 incident. Harrison said black folks marched on Main Street and called for Phlamm to be fired. A counter-demonstration by white people was held nearby in support of him.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he kept on teaching. And for another decade, he continued to stir strife in the community.
It is part of the legacy of the community where I was reared.
Some might note that the teacher has been dead for more than 30 years and wonder why I’m resurrecting this memory. The reason is simple: there are others of the same ilk peddling the same lies today.
Two events this past week had me thinking about what my class was taught about Till.
Mississippi officials erected a new bullet-proof historic placard marking where Till’s body was found. The previous sign was riddled with bullet holes. And that was the fourth sign to stand on that site. The three subsequent had been vandalized as well.
There is a determined effort by some to erase this event from our collective conscience.
And when politicians misuse the term, it diminishes its significance.
For example, last week, Donald Trump said he is being “lynched” by members of Congress seeking his impeachment.
He said, “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching. But we will WIN!”
Whether the president’s legal proceedings are fair is something voters and future historians will have to determine.
But they are most assuredly not akin to a “lynching.”
More than 4,000 African-American men, women and children were lynched — burned, beaten, drowned, shot or hanged to death — between 1877 and 1950.
It was the means used to intimidate blacks into submission. It’s a national shame that has been ignored for too long in our schools.
Trump, a child of privilege, has no business putting himself in the same category as Till or the thousands of other black people who suffered at the hands of racists.
For most folks, Till’s legacy is intertwined with Mississippi. But that ignores that he was born, reared and buried in Illinois. Tens of thousands paid their respects before his open casket in Chicago. The Chicago Defender published photographs of his mutilated body, bringing national attention to the fear faced daily by many black people.
In the months following Emmett’s death, the civil rights movement came alive with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
It’s time for Illinois to honor this native son.
The Illinois State Museum should create an exhibit educating the public about Emmett Till, the child whose death launched the civil rights movement.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and freelance reporter; ScottReeder1965@gmail.com
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