Sixty-five years ago Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, was brutally beaten and lynched in Mississippi. The story of his murder, and the images from his open casket funeral, became a galvanizing force in the civil rights movement. As Congressman John Lewis wrote in an essay published after his death this year by The New York Times: “Emmett Till was my George Floyd.”
Ollie Gordon, 72, grew up in the same building as Emmet Till, her cousin, and has vivid memories of him as a child. She draws the connection between the racial injustices of then and now.
“You see the same thing happening 65 years later. Lynchings are still going on,” Gordon said.
She joined WBEZ’s Melba Lara on the anniversary of Till’s murder to reflect on the meaning of the day. Below are excerpts from their conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Emmett Till in Chicago
Gordon: Emmett was a happy child. He loved to joke and play pranks on people, because he just liked to have people laughing all the time. He would help with the house chores. He could clean, and he could actually cook, and many times he would sit and pay the bills. So his mom had trained him well. He was very responsible. He had a dog. The dog’s name was Mike, and he took the dog everywhere. He loved animals.
What Gordon remembers of the abduction
Gordon: As the word came that he had been taken, of course the family became very alarmed and very worried. And then they were looking for him for several days. My particular mother — she had a very discerning spirit. She could see things. And she kept saying that she could see “muddy water.” That wasn’t a good sign. And when they found Emmett’s body, he was in the Tallahatchie River, which was muddy water.
The reaction to news of his murder
Gordon: At that point, hysteria in the house. The screaming, the crying, which the children didn’t quite understand. I had one brother that was older — he was eight — who’s deceased now. That was our first experience with death. So that terrorized us. And then to know that he was taken by white men, we were fearful. At night, we would have nightmares. We were afraid that in our sleep somebody was going to come and take us or kill us.
The impact of Till’s story
Gordon: It sparked the civil rights movement. It galvanized a movement like no one had known. The world also was able to see what Mississippi was doing, hanging and murdering and lynching, because we had television. Television was to the world [what] the internet is now. And there became a cry for justice because this was a child, this was a 14-year-old. And when they were able to see the mutilated body, Emmett’s body, you started to get support and a scream for change from all over the world.
Reflections on the present day
Gordon: To this day we’re still fighting for the same civil rights. It’s horrific when you look at Emmett, and then you look at George Floyd. And you see the same thing happening 65 years later. Lynchings are still going on. They’re just sometimes using a different technique, a different tactic.
Lauren Frost is a news producer at WBEZ. Follow her @frostlaur.