“The lynching of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us
anywhere in the world had better be the business of us all.”
Mamie Till-Bradley in Till
The name Till is one that most Americans and many people around the world will recognize from their civil rights history lessons. In 1955, while visiting family, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was brutally beaten and murdered for allegedly flirting with and whistling at a married white woman near Money, Mississippi. His bloated body was later found in the Tallahatchie River.
I must admit that when I first heard about the film Till, it immediately sparked my curiosity. Yes, I thought. The heinous crime that caused a media frenzy and galvanized the civil rights movement needs to be brought to new generations. But wait. We live in an age of trigger warnings (statements that alert readers or viewers to potentially disturbing content) and audiences with a heightened sensitivity to violence. So how can film director Chinonye Chukwu draw viewers to movie theaters and simultaneously do justice to the brutality of that crime?
It also intrigued me that Chukwu placed Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, in the film’s center. If she’s mentioned at all in American history textbooks, it’s mainly to recognize the role she played in the decision to show the world what Southern hatred looked like. She was the driving force to ensure an open casket at Emmett Till’s funeral. So what does the film reveal that most history books do not?
When I was five years old, I announced my new discovery: “Negroes (the polite term at the time) are bad.” My parents tried to correct me, but I felt my logic was unshakable: When the radio reported a crime, the perpetrator was often black. They never said that a suspect was white. I didn’t know any black people in our segregated town, but I knew many white people, and none of them were criminals. This was an open-and-shut case in my five-year old’s mind.
A few weeks later, my father took me downtown to see a parade. He struck up a conversation with a black woman we were standing next to. She had a baby, who captured my interest, though I was more entranced by her Kraft Caramels (my favorite candy at the time) she shared generously with me. This, of course, completely shattered my baby bigotry.
When I was approaching middle age, I reflected on the incident. Only then did I realize that when I was young, parade-viewing areas – as well as everything else – were strictly segregated in Enid, Oklahoma. It must have taken some planning and more than a small amount of courage to arrange for us to stand in the “colored area” next to a friendly woman who just happened to have a cute baby and my favorite candies.
The issue of race did not come up often in our small, mostly white town (at least not in the white community), so I had little need to reflect on what I had learned until Emmett Till’s murder on August 28, 1955, made national news and provoked national outrage.