I Thought of Emmett Till

A Martin Luther King Sunday homily by Rev. J. Mark Worth

This is a sad story. I wasn’t sure whether to tell this story to both the adults and kids, but I think this is a story everyone should know.

Sometimes, when we tell the story of the Civil Rights movement, we tell it as if Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech, and then everything was all right. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.

What was going on? We know there were laws in many states that said that black people weren’t allowed to use the same public rest rooms as whites, or go to the same schools, or drink from the same drinking fountains, or use the same public swimming pools. But there was more to it. Black people could be killed just for “stepping out of line.”

This is the story of a boy, Emmett Till. It was 1954. That sounds like a long time ago to the kids who are here today, but I was in elementary school when this happened. Emmett was black, and he lived in Chicago. He was fourteen years old , and had just finished eight grade. He was visiting his cousins in Louisiana during summer vacation from school.

One day he showed his cousins some pictures he had in his wallet. One was a picture of a white girl. “A white girl gave you her picture? That would never happen here in Louisiana.”

“She’s my girlfriend,” Emmett said, bragging a little. “You wouldn’t even dare talk to her here,” said his cousin. “Sure I would,” said Emmett. Later that day the went to a local store, and in the story was a young white woman, 21 years old. “Hey baby, how ya doing?” said Emmett to her. And as she left the store he whistled at her. A couple of nights later, two white men came to the house where Emmett Till was staying with his relatives. The men had a gun, and they kidnapped Emmett. They took him to a barn, beat him up, and killed him. They tied a heavy weight to him, and threw his body in the river.

The two white men were arrested, and were put on trial.

Teaching the story of Emmett Till ~

Several years ago, I used to be a high school history teacher. I had a video about this story, the story of Emmett Till, and I showed it to my class.

At the trial, the men admitted that they had kidnapped Emmett, but they said they just wanted to scare him, and let him go. They said they didn’t know how he died. But there was fingerprint evidence that linked them to the crime, and there was eyewitness testimony from a man who saw the men take Emmett into the barn where he was killed.

When the jury was about to decide, I stopped the video. I asked my class, “What do you think happened next?” The students in my class debated with each other about whether the two men were given life in prison or the death penalty. The class decided the men were sentenced to death.

I started the video again. My students were dumbfounded when the jury quickly gave a verdict of “not guilty” and set the men free!

And then the two white men told a national magazine, Look magazine, that yes, they did kill Emmett Till, and they were proud of what they had done.

My students were horrified. What they didn’t understand was that juries in the South in those days were all white, and an all-white jury would not convict a white man of killing a black person, no matter how strong the evidence was. There was no justice in Southern courts for black people.

Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. ~

Later that year, when Rosa Parks was on the bus one day, and the bus driver told her that she had to get up and give her seat to a white man, she later explained, “I thought of Emmett Till,” and what happened to him, and she just couldn’t obey a law that said that black people weren’t good enough to sit down on a bus.

And Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the Montgomery Bus boycott. Black people refused to ride the buses, and the bus company lost money, and people around the country realized that the law was wrong. And eventually the Supreme Court of the United States said that it was against the Constitution to tell black people that they had to ride in the back of the bus.

And a few years later, in Selma, Alabama, Rev. King led a series of marches and demonstrations, to get black people registered people to vote. The the people who worked for the city and the police were stopping black people from registering to vote. And remember, if you can’t vote, you can’t serve on a jury, either.

Rev. King was a minister, like I am. Sometimes we call him “Dr. King,” but his doctorate didn’t mean he was a medical doctor. He was a doctor of ministry. He was a Baptist preacher, and the Civil Rights movement was organized in the Black churches in the South. The black churches understood that part of their mission as churches was to help build a society that treats everyone fairly.

Two white Unitarian Universalists, Rev. Jim Reeb, and Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, went to Selma to help with the work of Rev. Dr. King. One evening white men hit Rev. Jim Reeb in the head with a club, and killed him. And a couple of nights later white men shot and killed Viola Liuzzo. Both of these Unitarian Universalists were killed because they were helping Rev. King’s campaign in Selma.

Finally, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And today black people vote and hold office and can sit on juries in all of those states that didn’t allow them to do those things in the past.

Work yet to be done ~

We have not solved all of our problems. There’s still work to do. North and South, the police and the courts still sometimes treat black people differently than they treat white people. But because of people like Rosa Parks, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of other people who joined in the marches and demonstrations for voting rights and justice, many things are better than they were.

We know that today black people still are sometimes treated unfairly by the police or in court. There’s always more we can do to make the world a better place. The church is one place where we can learn to do better, where we can find people who want to help bring about change, and organize to help make the world a better place, fairer for everyone. This year, on Martin Luther King Day, we should all remember the people who gave their lives to make America a better nation for everyone.