The recent discovery of Emmett Till’s original casket in a rusting shed, yards away from where he was laid to rest by his mother, Ms. Mamie Bradley, in 1955 brought back memories of an ugly past. If you recall, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago youth, was brutally lynched by racists in Money, Mississippi for apparently whistling at and saying “bye baby” to a white woman. Till crossed the Jim Crow racial line with a few simple words and paid dearly with his life.
The grave robbers who desecrated the historic African American cemetery where Emmett Till was buried, profiting from the pain of grieving families, probably had no care or no memory of Emmett Till. They had no knowledge of the open casket funeral his mother requested in 1955 so she could show the world “what they did to my baby”. Although Till’s body was not in the casket – his body was exhumed in 2005 as part of renewed police interest in his death and was reburied in another one – the original casket itself was of importance: It was a monument which was supposed to have been included in an Emmett Till memorial museum. Those who neglected and disrespected the casket should be ashamed for their acts, punished under the law, but also educated on the history.
Coupled with Rosa Parks’ courageous act that led to the bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama, Emmett Till’s severely mutilated body sparked public outrage about the violence of the racial line in America. Emmett Till’s body helped to galvanize millions, black and white, to push American to be a fully inclusive nation.
Yet events this week have shown us that the persistence of the racial line in America, far in time and space from the Jim Crow Mississippi of Emmett Till, still exists. Outrage has spread as reports surfaced about black and Latino youth being denied access to a private pool in suburban Philadelphia. Despite paying the $1900 fee and getting permission, the mere presence of black children swimming at the pool caused outrage among white patrons. The pool’s president later issued a formal statement in which he said that it was feared the children would “change the complexion” of the facility. This absurd and racially coded statement highlights that not only is racism still alive and well but is justified by making it seem a preference rather than policy. These young people where told clearly that they are not wanted and not valued, that by being there they were offensive to white members.
Both the desecration of Emmett Till’s grave in Chicago and the disrespect of the youth in Philadelphia indicate that some are already forgetting the struggles of the past. Since the election of President Barack Obama, we have seen terms like “post-racial” thrown about to explain the era we are in with an African American in the White House. Implied in the term is the notion that all vestiges of racism have been eradicated from institutions and the hearts of many and that true racial equality has been achieved. This is not the case.
Yes we have made strides in making the American democratic experiment work better for many, but racism is still alive and well. Just as Emmett Till’s body represented the offensive nature of racial brutality, we are reminded that the presence of little black and Latino children are still offensive to some. This time we all need to come together, across race and class, and pick up where Mamie Bradley, Till’s mother, left off. We need to speak out and say “don’t do this to OUR babies”.