Local foundation established in memory of Emmett Till
By: Rashard Zanders
Originally posted 8/17/2005
Commemoration set for August 28, 50th anniversary of Till’s murder
The newly established Emmett Till Legacy Foundation is asking all people of consciousness around the world to support and participate in a moment of silence on August 28, 2005, to commemorate the anniversary of Emmett Till’s brutal murder, which occurred on the same date 50 years ago.
The memory of Emmett Till still inspires people to fight against racial intolerance and injustice a half-century after his death from America’s most pervasive disease — racism. Till’s legacy has been given new life by family members, including his cousin Deborah Watts from the Twin Cities, intent on preserving his memory and the work of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.
Watts is Emmett Till’s cousin. The 2004 candidate for the 3rd Congressional District seat held by Jim Ramstad was just a toddler at the time of Till’s murder at the hands of White supremacists in 1955.
She, along with Wheeler Parker, another cousin who was in the house at the time Till was taken, have united with other family members to found the Minneapolis-based Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. Death at the age of 14 usually doesn’t allow one to leave much of a legacy, but the foundation’s organizers say otherwise.
“We are intent on creating a legacy of hope,” said Watts in an interview with the MSR on August 10. “We feel that the work Emmett’s mother did in her lifetime — seeking justice, helping youths reach the next level in their lives — is something that we want to continue.”
She added that the memory of Till’s death still “brings the pain and ugliness of racism. We want to turn that ugly part of our history into one of hope. And that’s what we think Emmett’s legacy is going forward. As family, we wanted to set the record straight and manage this legacy with care, love, and respect the sacrifice Emmett made with his life, and the sacrifices of mothers, fathers and parents to keep their sons and daughters safe. It [Till’s death] changed the course of things for many young people,” she said.
Mamie Till-Mobley and the open casket
Mamie Till-Mobley was 80 years old when she passed away in January 2003. Family members at the foundation provided us with the following information highlighting what she’d done with her life after the loss of her son.
In 1989, Emmett’s mother, Till-Mobley, gave a speech at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. She is honored as one of the 40 martyrs of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
“When my eyes were a fountain of tears,” she said, “the realization came that Emmett’s death was not a personal experience for me to hug to myself and weep, but it was a worldwide awakening that would change the course of history. Emmett’s death was the impetus for the Civil Rights Movement in America. It was also the spark that ignited unrest in all the world where injustices were being perpetrated.”
Till-Mobley, perhaps more than any other person, exposed to the world the violence and cruelty of American racism by demanding an open casket funeral for Emmett, whose mangled and unrecognizable face appeared in Jet and Ebony magazines, “exposing Mississippi’s shame to the world. “ Open it up, let the people see what they did to my boy.”
Parker remembers seeing Till-Mobley at her house before the funeral. According to him, Till Mobley was getting no response from the media or politicians at that time, which may have played a role in her decision to go with an open casket funeral for Emmett.
She then turned her grief into personal transformation, returned to school at age 33, and received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in three-and a-half years. She was a Chicago Public Schools teacher for 26 years, but she didn’t stop going to school. She went on to earn a master’s degree and began work on a doctorate.
She worked with children at her Chicago church, founding the Emmett Till Players, who specialized in reciting speeches by Dr. King. “My personal peace has come through helping boys and girls reach beyond the ordinary and strive for the extraordinary,” she said.
And, she left some advice for mothers who can still wrap their arms around their sons and daughters: “We must teach our children to weather the hurricanes of life, pick up the pieces and rebuild. We must impress [upon] our children,” she continued, “that even when troubles rise to 7.1 on life’s Richter scale, they must be anchored so deeply that though they sway, they will not topple. “
Till-Mobley’s determination in life is thus the inspiration to continue her work and legacy. Parker said, “We can’t leave Mamie. She took a lemon and made lemonade. Our goal is to continue what his [Till’s] mother was doing. Mama kind of carried on the work to keep her young people together over the years to develop their oratorical skills. It gave her life, gave her hope, and gave her something to do. It was like a breath of fresh air to her,” he said.
Parker was 16 at the time of Till’s death. At the funeral in 1955 he said, “I never did accept it [the body in the coffin] as being him. I didn’t have any sorrow: ‘This is not him. I’m going to see him again.’ I didn’t grieve, I was just kind of numb,” Parker recollected.
Foundation has four goals
The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation is not to be confused with the Emmett Till Foundation, which was begun by Till-Mobley, but the mission is similar.
According to Watts, many of the youths who participated in Till-Mobley’s foundation are successful adults now. “It took their skills — which were limited — their courage, self-esteem, and helped confidence blossom in youths who were afraid to speak out and do more,” she said.
The foundation is focused on four aims, says Watts. One is to educate and teach others to eliminate the forms of violence. “We are going to host becoming victors, not victims’ programs, and we are going to call for a new form of justice based on self-awareness, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, family unity, responsibility, economic stability and spiritual growth. We have a variety of different family members with skill sets in each of the four aims,” Watts said.
The second goal is to introduce “positive lifestyle platforms.”
The third aim of the foundation is to provide educational endowment scholarships for 14-year-olds to remove any economic barriers to their education.
And last, but not least, the foundation aims “to encourage and create a spirit of legacy-building. We want to create a platform where current leaders will be encouraged to pass the baton, their intergenerational knowledge, history, and sense of purpose to future leaders. We need to cultivate new leaders. Those that are currently leaders need to tap those coming after them. We will be awarding the ‘Legacy of Hope Award’ and acknowledging other leaders and individuals who operate in legacy-building,” Watts said.
“As a result of these, we hope to see less open violence. When we committed his body, his blood was still crying out,” said Watts.
When asked whether or not he thought hate crime and violence in the U.S. has increased or subsided since Till’s murder, Parker said that the case has made people be more careful about their behavior, despite the persistence of hate crimes today. “I know that laws cannot legislate the heart,” said Parker, an ordained minister in Chicago.
By launching the foundation, Parker and Watts, along with the assistance other family members are moving us to embrace a new kind of justice by helping others reach their fullest potential. As it says in the foundation’s brochure, “This is something Emmett never had a chance to do.”