Remembering Emmett Till and His Legacy

“Thank God we’re not where we were, but praise the Lord we ain’t where we’re supposed to be.” 

Those words were spoken recently by Deacon Arthur Miller, a Catholic clergyman who was discussing the brutal 1955 lynching-murder in Mississippi of Emmett Till, who had been a neighbor of his in 1950s Chicago. 

Till, a black teen who had been visiting relatives in rural Jim Crow-era Mississippi, was kidnapped, tortured and slain by two white men after he allegedly whistled flirtatiously at Carolyn Bryant, a white shopkeeper who was married to one of the men. Bryant’s husband Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were acquitted of Till’s murder just weeks later. 

The teen’s death, and — perhaps even moreso — the crusade waged by his grieving-yet-courageous mother, Mamie, to draw attention to it, was one of the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Till’s life and his mother’s crusade are featured in a new film, “Till,” currently in theaters. 

While Deacon Miller may have been talking about the life and death of his boyhood neighbor of more than 65 years ago, he was also focused on a 9-foot-tall statue of Till recently erected in Greenwood, Mississippi, about 10 miles away from the site of the store where the fateful whistling incident supposedly happened. 

“Maybe that statue is a calling to people to say it’s about time we stood up for what is right,” the deacon said in response to a reporter’s question. “Because this isn’t about being black, this is about social justice and our Catholic faith and what Christ taught us.” 

If in fact Deacon Miller’s words don’t ring hollow, it would be an all-too-rare occurrence in the Mississippi Delta, where in recent years, not one, but several signs and markers memorializing Till and the event surrounding his killing have been vandalized, defaced, torn down and even peppered with gunshots. 

At least two historical markers at the site of what was once Bryant’s Grocery either went missing or had to be replaced, and another four that had been erected on the banks of the Tallahatchie River near where Till’s body was dumped were also removed. Each one had been riddled with bullets, so the most recent one installed there was made from bulletproof steel. 

Yet in the face of what would appear to be lingering local efforts to erase the memory of Till and foster the hatred that killed him, Deacon Miller believes the new statue will stand as a “bastion of hope that we will never allow that kind of thing to happen again.” 

He’s not alone. Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee Against Racism, likewise said he hoped those who viewed the statue would “remember Emmett Till,” and be inspired to “do what we can to continue to fight to overcome the evil and sin of racism.” 

In March — 67 years after Emmett Till’s horrific death — President Biden signed into law a bill, named for Till, making lynching a federal crime in the U.S. At the time, he called lynching “pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone … is created equal.” A month earlier, shortly after his appointment by Pope Francis, the newly-minted Archbishop of Louisville said that working for social justice must go hand-in-hand with prayer. 

“Laws have an important role to play in overcoming racism,” Archbishop Fabre said on The Gloria Purvis Podcast back in February, “but laws alone will not change the human heart.” 

Psalm 97:10 , puts it another way: “Let those who love the Lord, hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.”