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Emmett Till’s Memorial

This weekend, my husband and I went to Emmett Till’s memorial. In 1955, when Emmett Louis Till had just turned fourteen, a group of white men murdered him in Drew, Mississippi. Emmett had come to Mississippi on summer vacation. His cousin, who was his best friend, was returning to the family’s home state, and Emmett wanted to come with him. He left Chicago for his great-uncle’s house. A gang of white men kidnapped Emmett from the house and took him to a barn outside Drew where they tortured and killed him. Following Sunday’s memorial, we were scheduled to process to the barn.

The Memory

When I was in college, I went to Europe on a group tour that took us to a concentration camp. I remember another woman and me standing in a barren dirt-trod area as the rest of the group continued to the “showers.” The woman had taught the holocaust to her elementary students. I don’t know what my excuse was, but I couldn’t go there. The memory kept returning as I packed for our trip to Drew. It made me think, Ellen, sometimes God springs you into action before you have a chance to think things through. For which I am grateful.

The Light in the Night

We spent the night before the memorial in Cleveland, Mississippi. We went onto the roof. This was the sky. My cousin labeled it, “Let there be light.”

The sky before Emmett Till's memorial
The rooftop sky at the Cotton House Hotel on Cotton Row in Cleveland.

The Lament for Emmett Till

The next morning we attended the Memorial Service of Lament, Love, & Empowerment Honoring Emmett Louis Till. The memorial was the first acknowledgment by the city of Drew’s of the child’s lynching. Attendees came from Drew, Little Rock, Jackson, Chicago, the Atlantic Magazine —all over. The Episcopal priest who officiated at my wedding gave a powerful testimony. The Episcopal bishop spoke an apology for our church. It was a moment to be proud of my church.

Where We Went

After the service, we joined the procession to the committal ceremony. A sheriff led us, as if we were a funeral procession. The pockmarked asphalt finally gave way to rough gravel. This is a photo of our destination. If you look to the left behind the white tent, you can see the barn.

Emmett Till's lynching site
The site where Emmett Till was lynched

The Atlantic article cited above makes the barn appear to be off in a lonely field by itself. No. It’s right on this idyllic cypress bayou. According to the article, the barn overlooks a swimming pool.

A cypress bayou at the lynching site
The cypress bayou in front of the barn where Emmett Till was lynched

We were not able to stay for the committal ceremony. I don’t know if folks went into the barn or not. I did not. The cheek-to-jowl of the evil done in the barn and the idyllic setting was almost unprocessable. For all I know, the owner of the house emerged and better explained to everyone how he was able to live beside the barn. In the article, he said he didn’t think about it. He’s lived in Drew most of his life. When he bought the place, he didn’t know the barn was where white men lynched a child. His dad only mentioned it after he’d built his new house.

Mamie Till-Mobley’s Words

I want to end with the words of Emmett Till’s mom. Mrs. Till-Mobley was the one who made the gut-wrenching decision to make the most private of moments—the funeral of her only son—a public proclamation: this is what white hate did to my child. She opened the casket to show his face to America.

Mamie Till-Mobley on the message of Emmett Till's lynching
Words from the mother of Emmett Till

Drew Mississippi, Emmett Till, Honoring Emmett Till, Lament, Lament Love & Empowerment for Emmett Till, love, Lynching of Emmett Till

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