At age 14, African-American Emmett Till was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta nearly 60 years ago when he did something that wouldn’t turn a head today: He talked with, maybe even flirted with, a white woman who ran a grocery store.
It cost him his life.
A few days later, Till was hauled off to a barn, beaten until he lost an eye and was fatally shot in the head in an act of prejudice that has been credited as being a major impetus for the U.S. civil rights movement.
On Monday, in memory of Till’s death and in recognition of the lessons of the state’s checkered past, Mississippi’s senators joined Attorney General Eric Holder and other notables in planting a sycamore tree to honor Till on the north side of the U.S. Capitol.
“Although Emmett Till died senselessly – and far too soon – it can never be said that he died in vain,” said Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, while standing in a light rain. “His tragic murder galvanized millions to action. And today, we commemorate this legacy by planting a tree in his honor – a tree that will be his living memorial, here at the heart of our republic, in the shadow of the United States Capitol.”
After being acquitted of murder charges by an all-white Mississippi jury, Roy Bryant, whose wife had the exchange with Till, and Bryant’s half-brother J.W. Milam, confessed to Look magazine that they had killed the teen and thrown his weighted body in the Tallahatchie River.
Mississippi’s senior senator, Republican Thad Cochran, acknowledged the role of Till’s death “in heightening America’s awareness of the injustice of racial discrimination in our country.”
“Emmett Till’s legacy carries with it memories of the risks so many took in my state, and elsewhere, in efforts to advance the cause of racial justice,” he said. “This tree is a symbol of their sacrifices, too.”
Cochran’s Mississippi colleague, Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, quoted Myrlie Evers, widow of slain Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, in saying that events in Mississippi provide a measure of the nation’s civil rights progress.
“Today is another step at remembering our history, learning from the bitter, painful lessons of our history,” Wicker said. When a new civil rights museum is completed in Jackson, he said, it will mark a further step “to build on the lessons that we learned.”
Holder said that Till’s death “still feels raw,” perhaps because the perpetrators went unpunished or because civil rights progress came too late to save the youth. The progress in the decades since, he noted, “made possible my own life and career, and those of leaders like President Obama.”
Others attending the event included columnist Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post; Janet Langhart Cohen, author of the play “Anne and Emmett;” Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the Democratic congressman and civil rights leader, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.