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Emmett Till — I was there

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

“I was there.” These are the three words that I have often said over the years. These are also the three words that I have always wished I couldn’t say. I am talking about the lynching of Emmett Till. The release of the film, “Till,”  based on the decades of struggle by Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to get justice for her son, again is the reason I painfully say, I was there.

The film once more stirred the never-ending memory I have of Sept. 3, 1955. That was the day of Till’s funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God on Chicago’s Southside. I lived only a few blocks from the church. The Catholic elementary school I attended was also close to the church. Till’s family lived only a few blocks from my house.

The day of the funeral, my father announced that he was going to pay his respects to the family. He would take me, too. I and other children were not allowed in the church. We stood transfixed at the church entrance, waiting for our parents to exit. This was no ordinary funeral, but an event, and as we now know, a racial game-changing historic event. Till’s mother demanded that her son’s casket be open. She made it clear why. She wanted the world to see what they did to her boy.

The sight of Till’s battered body shocked my father. I still remember that vacant, near-traumatized look on his face when as he walked out of the church after viewing Till’s body. It was collective agony and suffering that he and other Blacks on my block and throughout the nation deeply felt.

If ever there was a racial lynching that screamed for federal action, it was the Till case. The instant the story broke nationally, Black leaders demanded that the Justice Department and the FBI act. This was the right demand to make, given the absolute refusal of white Southern sheriffs to arrest whites suspected of racial murders. In the rare cases they were arrested, all-white juries refused to convict them.

The Till case was no exception. In a joke of a trial, the two white men that killed him were quickly acquitted. But that was not the end of it. The murder continued to send political shock waves across the nation. Black leaders, labor organizations, and numerous public officials implored the Justice Department to act. Even then, there was a strong suspicion that others were either directly involved in the murder or had knowledge of the killing.

Federal statutes gave the Justice Department the power to prosecute individuals on civil rights charges when state prosecutors either failed to bring charges or conducted a weak, ineffectual prosecution that resulted in acquittals.

Till, though, was not solely a victim of a racist and hostile white jury. He was also the victim of a racially indifferent federal government. In the pre-civil-rights era, presidents and their attorneys general generally ignored or sparingly used the federal statutes to prosecute criminal civil rights cases abuses. This had less to do with the personalities, individual preferences or even racial bigotry of the men in the White House and the Justice Department than with political expediency. They were determined not to offend the politically powerful South.

The murderers of Till are long dead. There have been many demands to prosecute Carolyn Bryant Donham. She is still alive. It was her lie that Till sexually harassed her that proved to be Till’s extra-legal death sentence. Mississippi’s attorney general in July 2022 again declined to prosecute her.

I and others owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Ms. Till-Mobley for her long and valiant fight for justice. “Till” is a powerful testament to that fight. It is a painful film to watch. But I did — because I was there.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.