In 1955, 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till was severely and repeatedly beaten, then shot in the head, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River by two Mississippi men. Three days passed before Emmett’s body was found. This atrocity was committed because a woman claimed that Till had either whistled or spoken rudely to her, claims that years later she admitted were false. The two men who murdered the child were acquitted of the crime by a jury of their peers (white males) in an hour and five minutes.
In reading the Studs Terkel book Race, something that struck me most about the aftermath of Till’s murder was how forgiving Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, was toward the murderers. Ultimately feeling that there was nothing greater she could do to the men than the judgement god would pass on them, Mamie refused to be broken by grief; she became a school teacher and dedicated her life to Chicago’s educational system. Her decision to have an open casket funeral for her son was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
I have never been religious, but the strength Mamie Till found in her faith allowed her to contribute to real and lasting positive social change in the world, which I deeply admire.
This portrait was based on a photograph that Mamie took of her son on Christmas day of 1954, about eight months before Emmett was murdered. Above his head flies a tattered American flag built of the Talking Heads lyric “same as it ever was.”
And why “same as it ever was?” Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, and Stephon Clark, to name a few reasons, though the nature of these murders are different; they were committed by police officers. This is the beginning of a new body of work entitled Facing the Music. Cyntoia Brown is next.