A few days from now, on July 25, Emmett Till might have celebrated his 77th birthday.
Imagine him. Mr. Till.
Not the 14-year-old boy in the open casket, with his mutilated face and his mother weeping by his side, but the man that boy never got to be.
By now, Mr. Till might be a retired teacher or postal carrier or lawyer. Maybe he’d still be living in his childhood home, a red-brick two-flat on Chicago’s South Side. Maybe he would have raised a family there.
He might have a bad knee, a touch of arthritis, flecks of gray in his hair, wrinkles around his bright eyes, the ordinary evidence of an ordinary long life.
His grandchildren might come by for his birthday party and tease him for still wearing that old-fashioned tie.
“Mr. Till,” a neighbor kid might ask, “what was it like when you were little?”
More likely, no kid would ask that, assuming instead, as kids do, that the world they know is the world as it has always been.
But the world today isn’t what it was when Till was born in 1941, and it’s a double-edged truth that the world may not have advanced as much as it has without his monstrous death.
Last week the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was reopening the investigation into Till’s lynching, a story that has become part of the American historical bedrock:
August, 1955. Emmett Till, age 14, leaves home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. In a grocery there, he does something that offends a white woman. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he whistles, grabs her. Or doesn’t.
Whatever happened in that store, or didn’t, he was later beaten and shot, tied to a metal fan and dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
Back in Chicago, Till’s mother opened his casket to the public.
Converting her grief to courage, allowing the world to see what racial violence looked like, Mamie Till-Mobley helped ignite the civil rights movement.
For five days in a Chicago church, thousands of people streamed past. Jet Magazine and The Chicago Defender published photos of Emmett’s corpse, his body in a dark suit and white shirt, his face grotesque.
Eventually, two white men, both dead now, went on trial for the murder. They were acquitted by an all-male, all-white jury. They later admitted they’d done it, but they were never punished, and the case has long felt unresolved.
Not everyone wants the case reopened. There are those who say it’s a cynical move, pointless, a political ploy by the current administration, a retreat to the past when we should be focusing on the present.
But we need to keep in mind: 1955 wasn’t that long ago.
Millions of Americans alive today were alive then. That time lives with us, in us. What happened to Emmett Till remains intimately connected to today.
It’s true that times have changed. Our era is better in many ways thanks to changes sparked by the fury over Till’s death.
Part of the tragedy of his story is that he didn’t live to see how he helped change the world.
Civil rights. Voting rights. African-Americans in high positions in almost every field. The growing power of African-American culture in the wider culture. A black president.
Those were just dreams when he was young.
He would never get to see the new Alabama museum dedicated to revealing the atrocities of lynching, or the new civil rights museum in Mississippi. He would never go the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian. They might not exist without him.
He also didn’t live to see the problems that persist: the assault on civil rights and voting rights, the problems of police brutality, the poverty that keeps so many black Americans out of power.
And he didn’t get to live long enough to see his mother’s long, strong life. He would never know that nearly half a century after his death, she was laid to rest under a headstone that says, “Her pain united a nation.”
Emmett Till’s life was short. His death was awful. But what he represents lives on, and so do the important issues he makes us think about.
I like imagining old Mr. Till sitting on his front porch watching the kids play, eating a piece of his 77th birthday cake.
He didn’t get that future. Instead, his death continues to help us create a better one.