Emmett Till, in 2018


There’s a new podcast that I have started listening to called “This Day in History Class.” It’s from one of the hosts of “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” one of my favorite podcasts, and it has become kind of a stand-in for “The Writer’s Almanac”–that podcast was hosted by Garrison Keillor, and it was canceled when Keillor was fired for inappropriate behavior.

Anyway, on yesterday’s episode, the host talked about Emmett Till, who was murdered on August 28th, 1955.

I know his story, and I’m sure you do, too, but in case you don’t, quick recap:  Emmett Till was a young black boy (14 years old) from Chicago, visiting his cousin in Mississippi one summer.  He and his cousin went to the local store in town, where he allegedly acted inappropriately toward the white shopkeeper’s wife, Carolyn Bryant.  She told her husband Roy, and later that night, Roy and his half-brother went to Emmett’s uncle’s house and forcibly took him away; he was never seen alive again. His tortured body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River.

Till’s mother insisted that his body be brought back to Chicago, where he had a large funeral, and his mother published the pictures of his tortured body in two local publications. Those images are credited with reinvigorating the Civil Rights Movement. Everyone knew the two men were guilty–not least because they bragged about doing it. However, they were acquitted by an all-white jury in September, 1955.

Now, here’s the part that I didn’t know. In 2017, historian Timothy Tyson released details of an interview that he had had with Carolyn Bryant back in 2008.  At that time, she admitted that she had made up the worst of the allegations about Emmett Till, and then March 2018, just five months ago, the Department of Justice announced that it was reopening the investigation, on the basis of “new information.” That story made headlines last month. But obviously, I missed them:  this is the link to The New York Times story:  Emmett Till Investigation

Now, it’s not clear what will happen now, 63 years after the fact; and maybe some people would say that it doesn’t matter–it’s all moot at this point: Till is dead, the Civil Rights Movement is over, and the moment for justice has passed.

But, I don’t agree.  When I was listening to the report, I couldn’t help but think of that quote on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument in Washington DC: “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” One of the surest ways to make sure that nothing changes, that victims go on being exploited and that the ugliness of the past stays buried is to refuse to do the hard work going back and digging up the truth and making amends for past wrongs.  It is very painful, very difficult and sometimes not even very satisfying.  But the truth is still the truth, and it is better to tell it late than never tell it at all.

Somethings simply don’t have an expiration date; justice is one of them.

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