Honoring Emmett: His legacy lives on

September 17, 2009 3:42:55 PM PDT
Chicago students learned from Emmett Till's legacy by retracing his steps last weekend. Their trip to Mississippi was a culmination of a summer project studying Emmett Till. The visit was not only a history lesson, but also a demonstration of how his death gave life to a nationwide movement. Mississippi, the delta flatlands and the heart of the Deep South. Highway 61 and many rivers run through it, including the most infamous in the country, the Tallahatchie. Emmett Till spent the day in the cotton fields, like most blacks in Mississippi, then he retreated to a grocery store in Money, Mississippi.

"The minute we stepped in, with the bus, I felt like a part of Emmett was with me, like a part of his legacy and spirit," said one student.

People say the murder of Emmett Till galvanized the civil rights movement. The 14-year-old Chicagoan was not savvy in the ways of the South when he allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman at the grocery store.

Today, it's a dilapidated building, but the memories of that horrible day 50 years ago still echo. Chicago students traveled there to Mississippi to trace the last moments of Till's young life. They are from the Mikva Challenge, an organization that encourages young people to get involved in the political process. This diverse group, representing 29 different Chicago Public Schools, has been studying race relations. Now, they are getting a rare firsthand opportunity to see a part of history.

"It saddens me with what happened here, but it gives me more for the future," said 17-year-old Brittany Sprawls.

"Just to think the events that happened here 50 years ago sparked the civil rights movement, and just to think that it allowed me to go to school with the people I go to school with, different races and to be able to come into contact with many different people," said Tracy Foffman, student.

After their stop at the grocery store, it was on to the courthouse. Inside courtroom 203, the students listened intently and with emotion to a panel of people who were there five decades ago. The prosecutor's son, Bruce Smith, and Emmett's cousin, Wheeler Parker, told stories of how it used to be. Wheeler was with Emmett at the store and witnessed his kidnapping.

"Fear just gripped me because I heard the stories and what had happened in the South, and I said 'We getting ready to die.' They eventually took him, and that is the last time we saw him alive," said Wheeler.

His tortured and bloated body was sent back to Chicago in a pine box. His mother Mamie Till Mobley insisted his coffin be open for all to see. The only thing recognizable was his father's ring. Jet Magazine published photos of his funeral.

The Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, is the place where two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were tried and acquitted for Till's murder. It was the first time in Mississippi state history that a white person had been tried for a crime against a black person.


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