The death of Emmett Till

In January or February of 1986, I saw the Capitol Repertory Theater’s performance of Toni Morrison’s Dreaming Emmett, based on his life and death.


Emmett Till disappeared 60 years ago today; his mutilated body was found three days later. His mother allowed photos to be taken of his open casket, and the horrifying pictures helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement, including the “I Have a Dream” speech eight years, to the day, later.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I want to know why it is that I can see that photo in my mind’s eye when the event took place when I was but two years old when it took place. I’m guessing that on the fifth anniversary in 1960, Ebony and/or Jet magazines reran the photos, I saw them, and the image seared in my mind to this day.

When I was in high school, a bunch of us raised money for some poor, rural folks in Tennessee. One day, I was (foolishly) walking alone down some dirt road down there. I see a sign indicating that I was about to enter the state of Mississippi. I crossed into the new state, my mind screamed, “Emmett Till!” and I literally jumped back into Tennessee.

In January or February of 1986, I saw the Capitol Repertory Theater’s performance of Toni Morrison’s Dreaming Emmett, based on his life and death. I don’t remember if was particularly well-acted or -written. All I remember was that I felt again the pain that was Emmett.

The last time I had seen the picture in print was when his mom, Mamie Till-Mobley, died back in 2003.

In 2005, the case had been reopened by the FBI, with the exhumation and re-examination of Emmett’s remains, based on advances in DNA testing, followed by a reburial in June. After the gravesite was disturbed in 2009, the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum, which will open in 2015, acquired the Emmett Till casket.
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Emmylou Harris : My Name Is Emmett Till from her 2011 album Hard Bargain.

This is an edited version of my blog post of August 28, 2005.