Feb. 21, 2007, marks the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of El-Hajj Malikel-Shabazz, more commonly known as Malcolm X. I did not know this fact off the top of my head. Rather, several events in my life during the past three years forced me to recognize how shamefully little I know of black history. Because of this gap in what I consider to be critical knowledge, I initiated a purposeful endeavor to become informed.
This year, when purchasing my day planner (I'm old-school and prefer to scratch my obligations on paper with my tears as ink), I bought a black-history organizer, which highlights on each day one or more milestones pertaining to contributions and sacrifices made by black people across history. Regardless the banality of my life, pre-occupied as it is with kiddie krap, I'm effectively managing to squeak some enlightenment into the parched caverns of my gray matter. And there it was when I turned to Feb. 21 to note an afternoon appointment: the death of one of the black movement's most outspoken and controversial leaders.
Last week I watched The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. The DVD had been sitting in our console since October and each time I planned to watch it, I changed my mind in favor of lighter fare. I knew the general story and that the film would be extraordinarily painful to watch. Not wanting to feel depressed, I opted for anything else whenever a two-hour movie-viewing window opened up in my hectic life. On this day, though, I invoked Black History Month as impetus for skipping the shortcut to my easy place of Will Farrell-perpetuated denial and took instead the longer road to introspection.
Through first-person accounts of details previously shaded, the documentary tells the tragic story of a gregarious 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who, while visiting relatives in Money, Miss., during the summer of 1955, was savagely murdered for doing nothing more than whistling at a white woman.
Three days after the whistling incident, Emmett Till was kidnapped from his bed at the home of his great-uncle. In the middle of the night, the accuser's husband and a companion knocked on the door of Mose Wright, entered his home armed with guns, collected Emmett and took him to an abandoned shed, where they brutalized and mutilated him under the guise of teaching him a lesson. This child's nose was smashed, all but two of his teeth were knocked out, his tongue and one ear were cut off, he was bound by his neck with barbed wire to an old cotton gin and shot through the temple before being dumped into the Tallahatchie River.
When his body was discovered days later, town officials attempted to hold an immediate burial in a move to quell news of the horrific murder, to protect the image of the town and to insulate the bragging perpetrators, who were later acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. But Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, obtained a court order requiring the body of her only son to be returned to Chicago, where she could witness for herself what had been done to her baby.
Due to her astonishing courage and intractable determination that his death not be in vain, Emmett's gruesome murder was delivered directly into the consciousness of mainstream America. Mobley held a public viewing at the funeral. “Open it up,” she said of the casket. “Let the people see what they did to my boy.” She allowed photographs so the world would have no choice but to face that which it refused to. The film portrayed gritty images of Till's bloated, disfigured body and depicted crowds of people streaming from the church after viewing it; they wept with grief, swaying and moaning in sorrow, fainting from the stench of the corpse. The funeral was attended by some 50,000 people, and this mother's choice to share her loss publicly helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement. One hundred days later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, and it's been reported she'd been thinking of Emmett Till at the time.
In a 1989 speech, Mobley-who later earned her bachelor's and master's degrees and taught for 26 years in Chicago public schools-spoke of her decision. “When my eyes were a fountain of tears,” she recalled, “the realization came that Emmett's death was not a personal experience for me to hug to myself and weep, but it was a worldwide awakening that would change the course of history.”
As a mother, I cannot imagine the conversation that must have taken place around the kitchen table as she weighed whether to carry her grief alone into the shadows of anonymity. I am in awe of her prescience of something bigger than her own suffering and her unrelenting commitment to writing a better history than was offered to her son. Honored today as one of the 40 martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, Mobley died in 2003.
Fifty-two years later, Till's death is acutely relevant. Though convenience tempts me to avert my eyes and select the proverbial romantic comedy, I'm obligated to stare directly into the harsh sunlight of truth. Given that in 1998 James Byrd Jr. was chained to a truck and dragged to his death in a three-mile-long, modern-day lynching, and given that less than two years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, our government lackadaisically turned its back on thousands of American citizens, most of whom were black, I can't help but question how far we've evolved.
It's not an exaggeration when I say that the message reinforced and perpetuated by such incidents makes my body ache on a cellular level. As a white woman raising a black daughter, I'm privy to a unique comprehension of these unspoken messages and what they teach my child about how society values her beautiful dark brown skin. I dread that she might internalize this insidious devaluation. But I'll fight back by telling and re-telling my daughter of her history, which I'm working so diligently to learn.
Write to aaryn@SDcitybeat.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.