Did Black Lives Matter on August 28, 1955—in Money, Mississippi? How long? The most dastardly act of criminal torture, cruelty, brutality and murder took place on this continent 67 years ago this coming August 28, and the so-called Department of Justice has just closed the book on it without any resolution whatsoever. Emmett Till was the lightning rod for the entire civil rights movement—from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael—and the terrible inspiration for the most eloquent protest songs of our greatest songwriters from Bob Dylan and Len Chandler to Phil Ochs to Emmylou Harris—yet the horror of how he died in the small town of Money, Mississippi has never been seriously reckoned with. To say that what the Department of Justice did is unconscionable is an understatement. It is somehow unspeakable.
August 28, 1955—the day that the real Song of the South was written—not the Disney version, or the Joel Chandler Harris version, but the Ku Klux Klan version that would have to be overthrown before black people would stand a chance at equality and Martin Luther King’s dream could come true. Emmett Till—a fourteen year-old black boy from Chicago had gone down to Mississippi to visit his family, and walked into a small market not realizing he had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and was in a foreign country.
Emmylou Harris lets Till tell his own story, in “My Name Is Emmett Till.” I will too:
My Name Is Emmett Till (by Emmylou Harris)
I was born a black boy
My name is Emmett Till
Walked this earth for 14 years
One night I was killed
For speaking to a woman
Whose skin was white as dough
That’s a sin in Mississippi
But how was I to know?
I’d come down from Chicago
To visit with my kin
Up there I was a cheeky kid
I guess I’d always been
But the harm they put upon me
Was too hard for what I’d done
For I was just a black boy
And never hurt no one
They took me from my uncle’s house
Mose Wright was his name
He’d later stand and without hesitation
Point the blame
At the ones who beat and cut me
And shot me with a gun
Then threw me in the river
Like I was trash when they were done
I was sent back to my mother
At least what was left of me
She kept my casket open
For the whole wide world to see
The awful desecration
And the evidence of hate
You could not recognize me
The mutilation was so great
There came a cry for justice then
To be finally fulfilled
All because of me, a black boy
My name is Emmett Till
But I’d have rather lived
‘Til I was too old to die young
Not miss all I left behind
All that might have come
The summer clouds above my head
The grass beneath my feet
The warmth of a good woman
Her kisses soft and sweet
Perhaps to be a father
With a black boy of my own
And watch him grow into
A kinder world than I had known
Where no child would be murdered
For the color of his skin
And love would be the only thing
Inside the hearts of men
They say the horror of that night
Is still haunting heaven still
Where I am one more black boy
My name is Emmett Till
My Name Is Emmett Till lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.
Emmylou Harris comes from the Deep South—Birmingham, Alabama—where Dr. King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” to all the southern ministers who criticized him for wanting to move too fast towards integration. His letter was answered by the KKK who murdered four little black girls on Sunday, September 16, 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham—or “Bombingham” as some called it. So Emmylou knows whereof she speaks and tells Emmett Till’s story with conviction and knowledge.
Bob Dylan comes from up north—born in Duluth and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota—and wrote “The Death of Emmett Till” (July 25, 1941—August 28, 1955) during his early folk protest period in Greenwich Village, when he was seen as the reincarnation of Woody Guthrie, performing at local folk clubs like the Gaslight and the Bitter End. He was friends with Len Chandler and in his memoir Chronicles lets us know that he used to ride Len around the Village on his motorcycle and one time asked him if he could use his music for a new song he was writing about Emmett Till. Chandler taught him the strange minor chords he put into the tune, and gave it to Dylan as the co-writer. It goes like this:
The Death Of Emmett Till (by Bob Dylan music by Len Chandler)
‘Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago,
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door.
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well,
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.
Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.
They said they had a reason but I disremember what.
They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat.
There was screaming sounds inside the barn, there was
laughing sounds out on the street.
Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a blood-red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain.
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie,
He was a black-skinned boy, so he was born to die.
And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime,
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.
I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs.
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.
The Death Of Emmett Till lyrics © Bob Dylan Music Co.
I mentioned earlier that it was as if Till had unknowingly stepped into a foreign country—the one I had in mind is the title of my song about Emmett Till; “Darfur, Mississippi:”
Darfur, Mississippi (by Ross Altman)
No one has ever served a single day in prison
For the murder of Emmett Till fifty years ago
No one has ever served a single day in prison
For a dozen other murders whose names we don’t know
I know they got troubles in the land of the Sudan
And genocide is a fact of life today
But who are we to speak with moral authority
When the ones who committed this atrocity all got away.
And don’t start singing Kumbaya
Like I’m some stoned out hippie
Cause I’m still waiting for a little justice
In Darfur, Mississippi.
Emmett Till’s great uncle was man named Mose Wright
On the witness stand you never saw such bravery
When they asked him if he saw the murderer in the courtroom
Uncle Mose just pointed and said, “Dar he”
They found Till’s body in the Tallahatchie River
It was so disfigured they identified him by his ring
It only took one hour for the all-white jury to acquit them
And afterward they confessed—to Look Magazine. (Ch.)
Ground Zero of the civil rights movement was that Delta town of Money
Where a fourteen year old black boy was tortured and killed
For whistling at a white woman at the end of a long hot summer
Rosa Parks saw the picture of Emmett Till
Lying in his open casket on the south side of Chicago
Cause his mother wanted America to see
What they did to a black boy down in Mississippi
And every other black man thought that could have been me
And I want to be free. (Final Chorus)
America’s long slow march to freedom began with Mrs. Till’s heart-wrenching decision to have her son Emmett buried in an open casket. The front page photographs from the Heart of Darkness were displayed in Chicago and all over the country. At the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee, they decided to hold some workshops in nonviolent training and its directors Myles and Zylphia Horton got to work.
The Montgomery, Alabama Secretary of the NAACP—a domestic worker named Mrs. Rosa Parks—who had seen the gruesome photo of Emmett Till—took it upon herself to attend those workshops, and her rendezvous with destiny began. At the end of the training sessions they went around the room and asked all attendees what they planned to do with their training once they got back home. Everyone had a way to answer Myles and Zylphia’s questions—engage in fundraising, community organizing, education, outreach, and so on—everyone but Rosa Parks—who simply and honestly said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Myles Horton replied, “But Mrs. Parks, you need to have some kind of a plan—what is not as important as that it be thought out beforehand.” “I’m sorry, Mr. Horton, I don’t know what I’m going to do—but I’m going to do something!”
Then, on December 1, 1955, at the end of a long hard day at her regular job as a domestic worker cleaning rich people’s houses—and then taking a long bus ride home in Montgomery’s segregated buses, a white man got on board and couldn’t find a seat at the front of the bus. Whereupon the driver told Mrs. Parks to move to the back of the bus—in compliance with Montgomery’s segregation laws. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.
She finally had her answer to Myles’ question. “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested,” she remembers thinking to herself, before she was arrested.
Three days later the Montgomery Bus Boycott—and the Civil Rights Movement—began.
Fast forward to August 28, 1963—and the March on Washington—where Dr. King—the new pastor in town who hadn’t made any enemies yet and who therefore had been asked to lead the meeting at the Ebenezer Baptist Church where the bus boycott began—would make his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at this watershed moment. But why did Bayard Rustin—who planned the March—choose August 28 to hold it? To honor Emmett Till’s memory, that’s why—the 8th anniversary of the crime against humanity that Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam committed in Money, Mississippi, on August 28, 1955.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929; his holiday will be celebrated Monday, January 17, 2022; this FolkWorks Column is also in honor of Black History Month next February, 2022.
Images of Emmett Till via Wikipedia.
Still No Justice For Emmett Till
"Details of Emmett Till killing still a mystery as probe ends"