Emmett Till’s 70th Birthday

Emmett TillToday would have been Emmett Till’s 70th birthday.

Would have been, but Emmett Till was murdered when he was 14 years old.

A negro boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi, he may not have known that there were places in 20th-Century America still untouched by civilization. He carelessly violated one of the countless “unwritten rules” of the savage Mississippi culture, and for that he was kidnapped and brutally tortured to death.

His body was found three days later, horribly mutilated. His mother insisted on an open-casket funeral. She said, “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” Photos of the body were published in JET magazine (Warning: the photos are extremely disturbing) and other publications around the country.

In retrospect, it seems that the photos opened a lot of eyes to the nature of race relations in the American South. It was no longer possible to be blind. It was no longer possible to look away.

A little more than three months after Emmett Till was killed, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, launching the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

It seems to me that the Civil Rights Movement is bookended with the murders of children: Emmett Till in 1955, and four little girls in 1963.

It wasn’t all that long ago. Emmett Till would be just 70 now.