I’m white. He wasn’t. – A Reflection on Emmett Till

Photo of art based on a photo of Emmett Till. Public domain image from the US Dept. of Agriculture.

Ian Underwood

SYI Summer 2001 and Till Curriculum Project 2022

I’m white.

He wasn’t.

I’m from Mississippi and am pursuing my dreams of college and beyond.

He visited Mississippi, and, as a result, never had the opportunity to pursue his.

His story has been told….

It can’t be told widely enough.

Emmett Till was a fourteen-year-old Black boy from Chicago visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955 when he was abducted, tortured, mutilated, and shot by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. An all-white jury found the two men—who one year later would sell their confession to a magazine—not guilty of Till’s murder. Despite his tragic fate, textbooks have neglected Till’s role as a primary catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement. 67 years later, I found myself sitting on a committee dedicated to bringing that story to a wider audience.

During the 2021-22 academic year, I served as one of a group of Mississippi students chosen to help develop a national high school curriculum built on the Till narrative platform. 

Meeting weekly to discuss readings and examine the details of the event, we also pursued additional research to understand the crime more deeply. This included an outing to Money, MS, to experience first-hand the setting where all the brutal events of the Till murder took place in the same sticky, August heaviness in which they occurred. 

We peered cheek-to-cheek into the broken windows of the vine-covered, abandoned building where the alleged whistle happened. We leaned shoulder-to-shoulder over the iron railings of the bridge from which the body was dumped. We waved away thick clouds of mosquitoes at the overgrown, downstream riverbank site of the body’s discovery. We studied the impact of images and eyewitness accounts in the ensuing legal cases. We also incorporated testimonials from his mother, whose insistence on an open casket induced national outrage that led to the Montgomery bus boycott.

On a personal level, my engagement with Emmett Till’s story has changed me. I’m constantly reminded of his legacy and the price he paid. As a white Mississippian only two generations removed from Till, I feel a sense of responsibility, an uneasy awareness of a debt that I can never repay. That awareness permeates everything I do and every choice I make, from how I lead my school’s student body to my plans for what I pursue in college and beyond. While I’m uncertain where my future paths will lead, I know that if we all don’t collectively become students of our history, then we risk repeating certain aspects of it.

Emmett Till did not die in vain. Civil rights icon John Lewis was fifteen when Till was slain, and in 2020 noted that “Emmett Till was my George Floyd,” placing the current national charge for racial reconciliation in a meaningful historical context. The development of this curriculum we have constructed is long overdue. Through my contributions, I hope to highlight the historical facts – good and bad – that create an environment of transparency and truth within the U.S. education system, thereby ensuring that Emmett Till’s story is more widely told….

It can’t be told widely enough. 

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