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Emmett Till and the Ongoing Reality of White Racist Violence


Yesterday would have been Emmett Till’s 78th birthday, had he not been brutally murdered at 14 by white men who knew that this country would let them get away with it.

Also yesterday, ProPublica published a story about three white students at Ole Miss who were suspended from their fraternity for posing with guns in front of the oft-vandalized memorial to Till along the Tallahatchie River, where his body was dumped and recovered. I don’t really have much to say about this, personally, other than I find it both sad and totally unsurprising. People have been shooting or otherwise trying to rip down the Till plaque ever since it went up. Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who I’m currently writing a book about, is buried in Louisiana and his gravestone is bullet-ridden. White fragility is many things. Hating the history of black struggle is one of them.

It is worth pointing out that Ole Miss’s official line as of now is that they will take no action against the students because it’s not a technical violation of the university code of conduct. As the great historian-activist Jessie Wilkerson, who teaches at Ole Miss, puts it, this is effectively the university sanctioning the students “cosigning from the future the murder of a Black boy.” (Buy/read Jessie’s book.)

In any case, I think the best way to honor Till is to share something beautiful about him. I’ve shared Eve Ewing’s “I Saw Emmett Till This Week at the Grocery Store” before, but here it is again. It also appears in her new poetry collection 1919, a wonderful and bracing reflection on Chicago’s Red Summer, which erupted 100 years ago tomorrow.

I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store

looking over the plums, one by one
lifting each to his eyes and
turning it slowly, a little earth,
checking the smooth skin for pockmarks
and rot, or signs of unkind days or people,
then sliding them gently into the plastic.
whistling softly, reaching with a slim, woolen arm
into the cart, he first balanced them over the wire
before realizing the danger of bruising
and lifting them back out, cradling them
in the crook of his elbow until
something harder could take that bottom space.
I knew him from his hat, one of those
fine porkpie numbers they used to sell
on Roosevelt Road. it had lost its feather but
he had carefully folded a dollar bill
and slid it between the ribbon and the felt
and it stood at attention. he wore his money.
upright and strong, he was already to the checkout
by the time I caught up with him. I called out his name
and he spun like a dancer, candy bar in hand,
looked at me quizzically for a moment before
remembering my face. he smiled. well
hello young lady
       hello, so chilly today
       should have worn my warm coat like you
yes so cool for August in Chicago
       how are things going for you
 he sighed and put the candy on the belt
it goes, it goes.

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