Saturday will mark what would have been Emmett Till’s 79th birthday. Conversation and scholarship around Emmett Till and his place in the mid-century American Civil Right Movement usually focuses on his 1955 kidnapping, murder, and the ensuing trial, and rightfully so. But today, to commemorate the anniversary of his birth, FSU Special Collections & Archives shares here some primary sources documenting his abbreviated life.
Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941, at Cook County Hospital, Chicago, Illinois, to Mamie Till. He was named for his father Louis and his mother’s uncle, Emmett Carthan. Till was rarely called “Emmett” by family; he was frequently nicknamed “Bobo” or “Bo”. In 2018, Mamie’s cousin Thelma Wright Edwards reminisced with filmmaker Keith Beauchamp about Till’s birth, his nickname, and helping take care of young Emmett:
In 1947, relatives moved from Money, Mississippi to live next-door to Till and his mother in Argo, Illinois. Till’s second cousin Wheeler Parker Jr. was of a similar age and they became good friends. Parker and other family members shared their memories of young Emmett with Beauchamp for the 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (Parker’s interview is featured at about 1:42):
On December 27, 1954, a family friend took photos of Emmett and Mamie, with Emmett sporting new clothes he had received as Christmas presents that year. These are the last known images of Till before his lynching, and have played a key part in court proceedings and publications ever since.
We can only speculate as to what the next sixty-five years of Emmett Till’s life would have brought, had he come back from his trip to Mississippi in 1955, or never gone at all. Author Devery Anderson offered this passage about Till’s aspirations in his 2005 book Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement:
“Like most kids, Emmett thought about his future, and he talked about becoming a motorcycle cop or a professional baseball player. He had dreams of building his grandmother a new church and even talked of joining the air force after he heard that a boy could sign up at sixteen with a parent’s permission.”
In 2018, Mamie Till’s cousin Willie Wright told Beauchamp that, upon his joining the US Army in 1955, Till told him “I wish I was old enough, I’d go too.”
Which dream would have come true? All of them? None of them? No one can say, which is of course the deepest wound when children are taken from us – the loss of a life’s potential, sixty-five birthday wishes that were never made.
This weekend presents many opportunities for one to commemorate of Emmett Till. If you mark the occasion by attending events like this one, or reviewing American civil rights history, we invite you to remember Till the boy as well as Till the historical figure, and consider what might have been.
Sources and Further Reading
Wright Family Interview, Keith Beauchamp Audiovisual Recordings, MSS 2015-016, Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida.
Interview Part I: http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/FSU_MSS2015-016_BD_001
Interview Part II: http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/FSU_MSS2015-016_BD_002
Devery Anderson. (2015). Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. https://fsu.catalog.fcla.edu/permalink.jsp?23FS037183478
Keith Beauchamp (director). (2005). The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till [motion picture]. USA: Velocity/Thinkfilm. https://youtu.be/bvijYSJtkQk
Florida State University Digital Library. Emmett Till Archives. https://fsu.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fsu%3Aemmetttillarchivesmain
Emmett Till Interpretive Center, Sumner, Mississippi. http://www.emmett-till.org/
Emmett Till Memory Project. https://tillapp.emmett-till.org/
New York Public Library Schomburg Center For Research In Black Culture. Emmett Till Project. http://www.emmetttillproject.com/
Florida State University Libraries. Emmett Till Archives [research guide]. https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/Till