PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When Deacon Arthur Miller reflects on the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, he’s convinced at least 1% of the Money, Mississippi, community knew that it was wrong but none of them had the courage to speak out.
With that in mind, Deacon Miller said a new statue of Till in a Mississippi community not far from where the black teenager was kidnapped and killed is a powerful reminder of the community’s complicity in what happened and a call for Catholics to live out their faith.
“Maybe that statue is a calling to people to say it’s about time we stood up for what is right because this isn’t about being black, this is about social justice and our Catholic faith and what Christ taught us,” Deacon Miller, who was Till’s neighbor growing up in Chicago, told The Tablet, adding that he hopes the statue can be a “bastion of hope that we will never allow that kind of thing to happen again.”
“Hope that we can overcome even the worst of things and recognize that every human being is a child of God and the worst thing that you can do is destroy someone’s initiative, their curiosity, their hope.”
While visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, Till went to a local store with his cousins and supposedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, kidnapped and murdered the 14-year-old, dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.
The lynching became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Especially after Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, held an open-casket funeral in Chicago so the world could see what happened. Deacon Miller credits her for keeping hope alive.
“[Till] wasn’t Catholic, but back in those days, most people in the black community were very faithful because the only thing we had was hope, and the worst thing you can do to any community, any human being, is destroy their hope,” he said. “You can suffer at many things, but you can only do it with hope. What they did to Emmett Till was to try to extinguish hope, but his mother wouldn’t let it happen.”
The new statue, located in Greenwood, Mississippi, is about 10 miles from what’s left of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, the store Till visited on August 24, 1955. The 9-foot tall bronze statue depicts a living Till in slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie with one hand on the brim of a hat. Today, Leflore County, where Greenwood is located, is 70% black.
Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville, who leads the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, told The Tablet that the statue is a reminder that there is a “precious” cost to racism, and that cost is life.
“I hope those who look upon that statue will certainly remember Emmett Till,” Archbishop Fabre said. “I hope they’ll utter a prayer for him and all those who lost their lives due to racism, but I also hope it inspires people to do what we can to continue to fight to overcome the evil and sin of racism.”
When The Tablet spoke with Deacon Miller, 77, he was in Nevada, visiting his older brother, who was a good friend and classmate of Till. He described the inherent kindness Till had, even at such a young age.
Deacon Miller credits his mother for his strong Catholic faith. He credits his experience growing up in a segregated Chicago — combined with his understanding of Catholic values — for his commitment to fighting for racial justice. He was arrested for the first time in 1963 during a march against segregated schools in Chicago, and the last time in 2015, participating in a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
He formerly led the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office for Black Catholic ministries and wrote a book in 2005 titled, “The Journey to Chatham: Why Emmett Till’s Murder Changed America, a Personal Story.”
Deacon Miller said he’s seen estimates that only 5% of Americans participated in the Civil Rights Movement in a meaningful way from 1955-1964, noting the impact they had and how the church can hopefully have a similar impact.
“My hope is that our church, all of us, become that 5% because just 5% can change stuff, just as the [1%] in Money, Mississippi, could have said something, and it would’ve been much bigger,” Deacon Miller said. He added that as a nation, “Thank God we’re not where we were, but praise the Lord we ain’t where we’re supposed to be,” either.