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Emmett Till’s Murder: The Importance of Seeing and Remembering

A museum exhibition dedicated to Till and his mother collides with the Mississippi governor’s proclamation of Confederate Heritage Month.
April 14, 2023
Emmett Till’s Murder: The Importance of Seeing and Remembering
A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery May 4, 2005 in Aslip, Illinois. The FBI is considering exhuming the body of Till, whose unsolved 1955 murder in Money, Mississippi, after whistling at a white woman helped spark the U.S. civil rights movement. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

He stuttered because he had polio as a child. To help his speech, he imitated his favorite TV comedians and memorized the Gettysburg Address. He whistled, too.

To prepare Emmett for the racism he would inevitably experience in midcentury Mississippi, his mother gave him instructions: Don’t look white people in the eye. Move off the sidewalk when you see one coming.

“Oh, Mama. It can’t be that bad,” 14-year-old Emmett said.

“Emmett, it’s worse than that.”

Coming from a concerned mother, these words resonate perhaps even more now, in this era of widely documented and sometimes instantly broadcast police brutality and racial violence. But African-American parents have always felt the need to give their children the talk.

“How do you give a crash course in hatred to a boy who has only known love?” Mamie Till-Mobley later wrote.

In Chicago, before he boarded the train headed south to visit his cousins for the summer, Emmett asked his mother to have his bike fixed while he was away. He promised to pay her back. He gave her his watch to wear while he was gone.

He never did return home alive.

Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See,” now at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi, is a powerful traveling exhibit that tells Emmett’s personal story. It also shows a mother’s perspective: Mamie Till-Mobley’s bravery is much in evidence, as is her ability to bring together a community to fight for justice. Her work helped fuel the civil rights movement in America more than six decades ago.

This is a family-friendly exhibit designed for adults and children of roughly middle-school age on up. Creative uses of technology make the displays intensely interactive; they provide novel, tangible ways for people to connect to this important history.

The brutal facts are not sugarcoated.

Visitors learn about Emmett’s kidnapping and murder, the funeral and trial, and the movement that followed. Throughout the exhibit hall, easels with the phrase “Share with Us” invite people to write feelings they experience on yellow Post-it notes. There’s a “mother’s night” for moms to gather, reflect, and discuss. Emmett Till’s cousin, Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr.—who witnessed Emmett’s abduction by the men who killed him—will speak at Mississippi schools throughout April and May.

But the same month the exhibit opened in Jackson, Tate Reeves, Mississippi’s Republican governor, made a proclamation designating April Confederate Heritage Month. He offered this symbolic gesture on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a neo-Confederate organization known for promoting Lost Cause myths such as the shopworn lie that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.

Reeves’s Confederate Heritage Month proclamation says “it is important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation’s past [and] to gain insight from our mistakes.” Last year, while signing a bill prohibiting the teaching of “critical race theory” in the state’s public schools and community colleges, Reeves claimed that CRT is taught to “humiliate” white children. As a result of that vaguely worded law, students struggle to learn, teachers refrain from teaching, and all are hesitant to discuss uncomfortable truths about our past in Mississippi public schools.

African Americans make up 38 percent of Mississippi’s population—the highest proportion of any state—and yet the Republican-controlled legislature has banned books and squelched the teaching of black history. It also limits public school funding, demonizes school librarians, remains mute and immobile amid ongoing water and health-care crises, and has moved to silence political dissent in its own legislative body.

The Till exhibition will stay in Mississippi until May, then travel to Illinois, Georgia, and Tennessee; it has already stopped in Indiana, Alabama, and Washington, D.C.

Its artifacts serve as entryways to the past. They take us to 1955 Mississippi, a difficult, uncomfortable, violent place to be, but an essential one to understand if we want to comprehend our own times.

We need to go there. I would suggest that our political leaders need to go there, too.

One of the first things visitors see upon entering the exhibition is a display of Emmett’s baby and toddler pictures alongside Jim Crow–era signs such as “We cater to white trade only.” These can be viewed within an open green suitcase, the kind Emmett carried.

On the afternoon of my visit, I sit in a viewing area next to Ashanti Esco, her husband, and their 6-year-old son as we all watch a short video. The family hold hands as Rev. Parker, in the video, describes traveling with Emmett on the train from Chicago and arriving at the station in Mississippi.

On August 24, Emmett joined his cousins and some friends at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, where they played checkers on the store’s front porch. They took turns going inside to buy candy. After they left the store, Carolyn Bryant—the grocery’s shopkeeper—walked to her car.

Emmett whistled. As Rev. Parker describes it, he did so as a joke. It was a long wolf-whistle, like something out of a cartoon, and it shattered the tense Jim Crow decorum. Simeon Wright, another cousin traveling with Emmett, later said of his facetious provocation, “He had no idea how dangerous that was; because when he saw our reaction, he got scared too.”

Knowing he’d made a risky mistake, Emmett’s cousins got him away from the store as fast as they could.

Days passed.

At 2 a.m. on August 28, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, arrived with weapons at the home where the young men were staying, and they kidnapped Emmett.

No one knew what happened to him.

Three days later, a teenager fishing in the Tallahatchie River discovered Emmett’s body.

While the video plays, moving images of the muddy Tallahatchie River surround us.

To our left, the historical marker about Emmett Till lights up. Riddled with bullet holes, the sign has become a character in the saga, a visible reminder of an elusive but necessary reckoning. A bulletproof version was put up in 2019 to replace earlier Tallahatchie County signs that had been shot up or stolen.

Displayed in the words and pictures that surround us is the unerasable fact: Emmett Till was murdered for whistling. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till came to Mississippi, where he was murdered by men who were never held to account. That’s a fact that this traveling exhibit insists will not be erased or whitewashed.

Ashanti’s son looks at his mother. She squeezes his hand.

Mamie Till-Mobley did not disappear into her grief. She spoke out. “My boy was not going to be buried in Mississippi,” she said. “Let the world see what they did to my son.” She had his body sent to Chicago and displayed in an open, glass-topped casket, which was photographed for Jet magazine. A copy of the magazine’s September 22, 1955 issue—which contained the unforgettable images, including a picture of Emmett’s destroyed face—is on display in the exhibition. The cover caption: Will Mississippi ‘Whitewash’ the Emmett Till Slaying?

It’s a headline that could appear in today’s papers.

I ask Ashanti if the exhibit is too much for her or for her 6-year-old son.

Ashanti’s son shakes his head no.

“It’s a beautiful exhibit because Emmett was here,” she says. “He was here.”

Ashanti’s son picks up an old rotary phone to listen again to the eyewitness tell exactly what he saw the night Emmett disappeared.

“She did what was right for her child,” Ashanti says. “Support your children, even if they’re not here with you. Mamie Till-Mobley had young people come together and stand up and fight against something that was bigger than them.”

The Till exhibition tells Emmett’s story in a very contemporary-feeling, action-oriented way: It invites visitors into its work of witness and challenges them to explore ways to make change by sharing their stories, raising their voices, and providing support to those continuing the work that Emmett’s mother started.

Nearby, one of the “sharing boards” is covered with Post-its.

Share with us something that strengthened your resolve.
Mamie Till’s strength in spite of her grief, one note says.

Share with us something that deserves applause.
This exhibit.

“Emmett Till was my George Floyd,” Congressman John Lewis wrote in an essay published the day he died. “He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor.” Lewis was only a year older than Till. “I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me,” Lewis wrote.

On the same day I spoke with Ashanti Esco and her husband and son during our tour of the exhibition, the mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, his wife Ebony, and their two children also visited. They came in the company of California Governor Gavin Newsom, his wife, and their three children.

Newsom tweeted about the “enriching and grounding experience . . . [taking] in our nation’s complicated history.”

Would that all our political leaders toured museums like this one and reflected on the complicated, sad, and sometimes harrowing stories about our country they contain.

When the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened in 2017, Myrlie Evers-Williams—widow of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in the driveway of their Jackson home in 1963—addressed a crowd of over two thousand people. (The fact that she was his wife, and not a descendant, is a stark reminder of how close that era of struggle remains to us historically; as Faulkner wrote, the past is “not even past.”) Evers-Williams said that at one time, she hated Mississippi because of what it had taken from her.

“But Mississippi is not all that people think that it is,” she continued. She said she hoped we would slow down inside the exhibit halls. Look carefully at the rifle that killed her husband. Touch the bullet holes in Vernon Dahmer’s firebombed truck. Cry. Feel.

Artifacts connect us to the past in ways that books cannot. By providing access to them, museums can put the past directly into the hands of citizens. If you touch something, you are also touched by it. Voters and policymakers can here receive a different kind of education than they would through reprinted pictures and texts alone.

I hope that for some, seeing, feeling, and hearing these artifacts might make a difference in how they understand the history of their state, of the South, of our country. For others, though, it might just not work that way.

Former Mississippi Republican Governor Haley Barbour, who was instrumental in getting the museum in Jackson funded, discussed his memory of the civil rights era with a writer from the Weekly Standard in 2010. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said. The gaffe ended Barber’s presidential aspirations.

Then again, perhaps his poor memory of the era is what got the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum built in the first place.

“Let the World See” closes in Jackson, Mississippi on May 14. It will then travel to the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago (June 3–July 16), the Atlanta History Center in Atlanta (Aug. 5–Sep. 17); and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis (Oct. 7–Nov. 19).

Margaret McMullan

Margaret McMullan is the author or editor of nine award-winning books, including the novel In My Mother’s House, the anthology Every Father’s Daughter, and the memoir Where the Angels Lived.