This could be the title for so many books about the Civil Rights Movement, but this time it's referring to The True Story of the Emmett Till Case, a book by Chris Crowe. I had requested this book for our library years ago, but I actively avoided reading it. I already knew young Emmett's story; I discovered it when I was nearly as old as he was when he drew his last breath.
I don't mind telling you that I was not a stellar student in middle school. In 8th grade, I do remember charting facts about the Vietnam War and being fascinated by the Tinker v. DesMoines Supreme Court Case. And then there was the quarterly poetry memorization requirement. 25 lines per quarter in 7th grade, 50 in 8th. Oh, the dread with which I went to school those days in anticipation of standing before my peers, drawing a blank and perhaps fainting on the spot. This medieval expectation was responsible for some of the most visceral memories of conducting research I've ever experienced. I'm pretty certain that my English teacher did not plan for my new obsession, nor did she ever know about it.
Yes, we are getting to Emmett Till, but it started with the four little girls. I was researching poet Dudley Randall in preparation for presenting "The Ballad of Birmingham." The poem galloped along in a sing-song rhyme while recounting truly horrific circumstances. These were the days of microfilm and microfiche, trips to the public and local college libraries and getting taxied around by my dad. I don't remember talking to him about what I was sifting though. When something of such great magnitude weighs on my mind, I usually get quiet and look for more information. That meant Medgar Evers, Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. Next was Emmett Till.
A black teen down from Chicago after his 8th grade year was visiting relatives near Money, Mississippi. In what seems to be a case of teenage boy bravado, he took up a challenge from friends and tried to flirt with a young white woman working behind a store counter. Till was later taken from his relatives' home in the middle of the night, tortured and murdered.
Days after his disappearance a white teen found Till's body in the Tallahatchie River. This is the image that I remember as I scanned the pages of Jet magazine. Till's grieving mother, Mamie, made a chilling decision on behalf of a nation. She insisted on an open casket funeral and allowed Jet to publish the photographs. This was no ordinary open-casket. Her child was nearly unrecognizable. His body was almost doubled in size due to being under water for so long; his face was distorted from the vicious beating as well. This was her child, and she wanted everyone to see him.
Young Till is called "the boy who triggered the civil rights movement." He predated Rosa Parks's act of civil disobedience, and it was Medgar Evers who assisted in finding witnesses for the case against Till's murderers. Years later Evers would be shot on his front doorstep after arriving home from work while his children raced to the other side of the door to greet their father.
Show me an 8th grader, and I'll show you someone who is very interested in justice. These lessons came to me when I was ready to hear them, but as an adult, I didn't want to read about the case all over again.
If you read my earlier post about the summer seminar I've applied for, you'll remember that the course centers on Clarkesdale, Mississippi. One of the required books is Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. No, I haven't been selected yet, but I thought it was time that I faced that book. It arrived a couple of weeks ago, but I still wasn't ready. I wrapped it in a favorite flannel pillowcase and placed a heart milagro on top of it and slid it in a wooden drawer. This may seem strange to you; it seemed strange to me too. I got the book out today and read it quickly. Yes, that photograph is in there, but I feel that the complex story was handled in a way that would reach most teens without frightening them away first. The book is just over 120 pages and keeps a narrow focus. Photographs add even more gravitas to Till's story.
Like I said before, I already knew this story, but here's something that I did not know. At the time of jury selection, "Mississippi state law required that only registered male voters who were at least twenty-one years old and could read and write were eligible for jury duty. Even though 63 percent of the residents of Tallahatchie County were Black, the pool of prospective jurors contained only white men because Tallahatchie County has no Black registered voters" (79). Although I had studied the events surrounding the Voting Rights Act, I never made the connection that the right to vote also impacts jury selection in a very basic way.
Now that our 8th grade social studies is civics, not world geography, I look forward to compiling a unit on the Civil Rights Movement. The way that so many young people affected widespread social change should be inspirational for most teens. As adults, we already know that social justice starts with just one person "being the change." It's good to introduce this idea to teenagers while they are hungry and idealistic. Sure, some of the battles they may take on will seem to lack "great social import," but they are advocates in training. This will be the foundation of thought for the defining moments in their future when they will have to choose a side that represents their idea of integrity.
Chris Crowe's non-fiction book I mentioned was actually a collection of his research for writing Mississippi Trial, 1955, a piece of historical fiction. I have not read it yet as I prefer my history to be as factual as possible, but it comes highly recommended by a self-proclaimed reluctant teen reader. Okay, sometimes she says she "hates" reading, but I prefer to assume that's hyperbolic.
And don't miss A Wreath for Emmett Till. It's a spellbinding masterpiece.