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60 Years Later: Remembering Emmett Till

“My mother said to me, ‘I better not ever catch you with no white woman!'”

Those were the words uttered to Chicago resident Hillary Gardley when he was just fives years old in 1955. News of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s death had just hit Black media, and his mother’s reaction was one of shock, panic and fear.

That advice was well warranted.

“I remember one time, it was a bunch of white people at the church and I was just playing when I did this, but I shouldn’t have done it,” said Gardley. “It was a white girl, a bunch of white people in the church that day and we were just talking and I said, ‘I’m going to put my arm around you.’ And at that moment in time, she thought about it and said, ‘Don’t do that. I don’t mean no harm.’ Later, I walked away from it and I thought about it. She was right. That was really stupid [of me].”

Gardley was one of dozens of people who gathered in memory of Emmett Till’s undeserving fate in Chicago on Friday. We weren’t standing in front of Robert Temple C.O.G.I.C., the location of Till’s funeral to remember the death of a child brutally murdered over bigotry.

“Many stories have been told, but it was 30 years before they asked us what happened,” said Wheeler Parker Jr. during the gathering outside of the church.

Parker Jr. is not only a relative of Till’s, but a witness to his kidnapping. He was inside the Mississippi home from which Till was dragged out of sixty years ago today. It’s a memory that will forever haunt him.

“I’m always reminded of what happened,” said Parker Jr. “The fear that surged through the house as the abductors went room to room looking for Emmett. I truly believed that we would all be killed that night.”

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Emmett Till’s final resting place.

The event is one of many this weekend commemorating the 60th anniversary of Till’s death.

Dozens of loved ones, activists, legislators and community residents gathered at the Temple, as well as Burr Oak Cemetery, Emmett Till’s gravesite, to acknowledge the impact that Till’s death had on the Civil Rights Movement.

Among them was Jacqueline Johnson, the mother of Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old Black Georgia teen who was found dead in a rolled up gym mat in 2013.

“My son’s face reminds me so much of Emmett Till’s face from sixty years ago,” said Johnson. “I feel like I’m reliving my son’s own funeral in terms of what’s going on. It’s real hard to be here, but it’s a legacy. I want people to know that our kids are our hearts, our future. It’s unthinkable to live without them.”

Johnson (far left), poses with Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, Calandrian Kemp, mother of George Kemp and Beatrice X. Johnson, Oscar Grant's aunt at Burr Oak Cemetery in Chicago.

Johnson (far left), poses with Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, Calandrian Kemp, mother of George Kemp and Beatrice X. Johnson, Oscar Grant’s aunt at Burr Oak Cemetery in Chicago.

In 1955, you were murdered without hesitation if you were Black.

Sadly, many feel that fact still rings true today.

“There is a question of Emmett Till’s murder that looms large in our spirit, in our minds, in our everyday activity even today,” said Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush. “And that question is a question that young African-Americans are answering even at this very hour. Black lives matter. Black lives mattered when Emmett was killed. Black lives mattered when Fred Hampton and Martin Clark were killed and Black lives matter even today.”

Till, a film based on the tragic events leading up to the young teen’s death, is currently in production. JET spoke with Executive Producer Chaz Ebert about the importance of keeping Till’s legacy alive.

“Even sixty years after his brutal murder, his legacy was so illuminating, that it hasn’t extinguished,” Ebert said. “And the courage that his mother showed, calling for an open casket so the nation can see what was done to her son, was really one of the galvanizing acts of the civil rights movement.”

While today may be a sobering reminder of just how far we have to go, we should also be encouraged to remember that Emmett’s death shook up the nation.

“One thing his mother said, ‘I hope you [Emmett] didn’t die in vain,'” said Parker Jr. “This [event] let’s us know that he didn’t. Emmett still speaks from the grave.”

Members of Till’s family and the Mamie Till Mobley Foundation will host a weekend of commemorative events. Click here for the full event schedule.