WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) — The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. still remembers clearly the moment as a teenager he thought he was going to die.
Parker was 16 years old, visiting family in Mississippi, when he woke in the early morning hours to the sound of voices in the house. Moments later, the door to his bedroom opened and a man pointed a flashlight and a pistol in his face.
He shut his eyes tight, but the shot never came.
The man moved on to the next bedroom and the next before finding and kidnapping his cousin — Emmett Till.
It was the last time he saw his best friend alive, Parker, now in his 80s, told a packed concert hall Tuesday night (Oct. 25) at Wheaton College, the evangelical flagship school in the Chicago suburbs.
What happened next — Till’s brutal murder, his mother’s decision to allow an open casket at the 14-year-old victim’s funeral, so the country could see what had been done to her son — shone a light on racial violence in the United States and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Mamie Till-Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. (Chicago Sun-Times/AP Photo)
“A picture’s worth a thousand words. That picture made a statement. It went throughout the world, all over the world, and it still speaks,” Parker said of the photographs of Till in his casket, taken by David Jackson and first published in Jet magazine.
The story of Till continues to resonate because it “provides us with a lens to understand racial conflict in our own moment,” said Theon Hill, associate professor of communications at Wheaton College and primary organizer and moderator of Tuesday’s event, “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith.”
“When we see George Floyd killed right in front of us due to the officer’s knee,” said Hill, “when we see Breonna Taylor’s death, when we see Ahmaud Arbery, we’re trying to make sense of what’s happening, and Till’s death, as tragic as it will always be, provides us with a grammar to understand this is what’s happening and this is how you might respond in your moment.”
The enduring relevance of Till’s death is apparent in the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime and signed in March by President Joe Biden, nearly 70 years after Till’s murder.
“A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till” by the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. and Christopher Benson. Courtesy image
It was 30 years before anybody asked Parker his account of what had happened over the handful of days in 1955 he and his cousin, who lived in Chicago, spent in Mississippi visiting family, according to Parker, the last surviving witness to Till’s abduction.
In Parker’s account, Till is a jokester, the boy next door he accompanied fishing, picnicking and on other trips. When his cousin found out he was planning to take the train down South to visit his grandfather, he insisted on going too.
“If you didn’t live in Mississippi at that time or experience what it was like, you have no idea what it was like,” Parker said.
He had lived in the South until he was 7 and knew “what you had to do to stay alive and what could happen to you,” he said.
When the younger boy whistled in the presence of a white woman outside a store, Parker said, the cousins left in a hurry. He worried what could happen in a place and time when a Black man couldn’t so much as look at a white woman, he said.
But days passed, and they’d nearly forgotten about the incident. Then came the moment Parker heard voices in his grandfather’s home at about 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, asking about the boys from Chicago.
“Sunday morning should be the safest place on earth for a young man in his house — on Sunday morning, waiting to go to church,” he said.
Shaking and sure he was about to die, he prayed, “God, if you just let me live, I’m going to get my life together.”
That Monday, he returned to Chicago alone, his life changed “completely,” said Parker, now pastor and district superintendent of the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ in Summit, Illinois.
The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. speaks during the “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith” event at Wheaton College, Oct. 25, 2022, in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
What happened to Till changed the country, too.
Dave Tell, author of the 2019 book “Remembering Emmett Till,” told the audience Tuesday night that he had become invested in civil rights because of Till’s story.
“The Till story prompted a new generation to stand up for justice, and I think the good news of the night is that the Till story — Rev. Parker’s story — is still motivating a new generation,” Tell said.
It’s a story, he said, the U.S. needs to hear today more than ever. Considering the stories of Floyd and others against the backdrop of Till’s murder, it’s hard to minimize their killings as “a problem of a bad apple or bad cop,” he said.
And the church has a role to play in sharing that story, both Tell and Parker agreed.
The biblical Book of Genesis tells the story of Abel, murdered by his brother Cain, Tell pointed out. In the story, God says Abel’s blood cries out to him from the ground, where Cain has tried to bury what he did.
If God demands that voices that have been buried be brought to light as part of the work of justice and healing, shouldn’t the church? Tell asked.
“We’ve got to keep the legacy going — got to keep the story going — and not with animosity,” Parker added.
“Just tell the story. It’s history. It’s real. Tell what happened,” he said.
The investigative news agency ProPublica released a photo showing three white students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker dedicated to Emmett Till.
White men lynched Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago, for supposedly flirting with a white woman at a store in Mississippi in 1955. His murder, along with his mother’s defiant decision to display her son’s mutilated face in an open casket, helped spur the civil rights movement.
Upon seeing the photo, one of my first questions was: “What church do these young men attend?”
To ask about their churches is to inquire about the role communities of faith play in perpetuating or dismantling racism in its various forms. The young men may not go to church. They may not even be Christians. But in an area known as the “Bible Belt” the cultural influence of Christianity is strong. So how the church influences the racial understanding of white Christians deserves probing.
The young men positioned themselves in front of this marker like big-game hunters proudly displaying their deceased prize. It’s as if Till, his memory, his murder and his legacy were all just a game to this grinning group.
One of the people pictured even posted the photo on his Instagram account. It garnered almost 250 “likes” before being taken down when reporters started asking about it. One person who saw the photo filed a complaint with the University of Mississippi back in March, but officials there did not take any action. Instead they referred it to the FBI where the case stalled because officers said the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”
Other entities took more decisive action. The three men pictured all belong to the Kappa Alpha fraternity. According to its website, the fraternity cites Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” When fraternity leaders were made aware of the photo last week, however, they immediately suspended all three frat brothers.
Aside from the disciplinary actions, other issues remain.
Did these young men bother to read the historical marker behind them to learn about Till and the significance of his life and murder? Did they think twice about posting this picture publicly and what it communicated about how they regarded black people? Did the teaching of their churches help or hinder their sensitivity concerning race?
The primary question is not whether churches are endorsing overt racism; they almost certainly are not. The question is about how church leaders understand race and what they are teaching their members about it.
It could be the case that churches are not teaching much about race at all. Pastors remain relatively silent about racism from the pulpit, Bible study groups may not touch the topic, and few church members in homogenous white congregations ever bring it up.
In other cases, churches may talk about race, but in unhelpful ways. Oftentimes, they try to do so in a “colorblind” way by emphasizing commonality and by minimizing or ignoring differences.
They claim they “don’t see color” and that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their race or ethnicity. These teachings become problematic when the varied life experiences, racial hardships, and history of black people is blotted out in a blob of contrived sameness. Unity does not mean uniformity.
Other churches may have a truncated explanation for how race works. White evangelical Christians, in particular, tend to think of race in individualistic terms. The problem, they say, is bad relationships — as when a person doesn’t like another because of race, or when someone uses racial slurs. The solution, according to this line of thinking, is to have more positive relationships across the color line.
Relationships with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is a necessary part of bringing about racial justice, but it is not sufficient. Personal relationships have little impact on structural racial inequalities such as anti-black police brutality, high rates of maternity-related deaths among black women, or the racial wealth gap.
No amount of one-on-one lunches, small group discussions or coffee meetups will automatically impact the broader issue of institutional racism.
White churches have to be attuned to how they may implicitly reinforce racism. Some Christian churches have started private schools. If those schools do not intentionally embed racial awareness into their curricula and practice, they are likely perpetuating misunderstandings.
Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.
If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.
Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.
Churches also have to talk about race. On any divisive topic, the temptation is to avoid discussing it for fear of offending someone. But people are already talking about race— at the dinner table, at work, in group text messages — and they often do so in unhelpful ways. With a shared language and mutually understood concepts, pastors and church leaders can be the guides their members need for talking about race in nuanced, spiritual and morally informed ways.
What if those young men who proudly posed in front of a defaced sign dedicated to a lynched boy had been deeply educated by their church about race and racism? What if they’d had a Sunday School class on the history of American Christianity and race? What if they learned to see what the Bible says from Genesis to Revelation about how to understand and celebrate differences? What if those young men had learned a robust doctrine of the image of God to better grasp the dignity of all people?
No one should need specialized teaching to know that standing with guns in front of a plaque detailing Emmett Till’s murder is racist. An elementary understanding of U.S. history and a modicum of concern for other human beings should prevent such offenses. Yet, whether churches lend more to perpetuating racism or providing remedies remains a pressing concern.
If churches, which have historically had such a large role in driving racism, do not effectively teach their congregants about race, then many Christians will continue to be part of creating racial problems rather than helping enact solutions.
(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
In August of 1955, Emmett Till was lynched in the Mississippi Delta. The 14-year-old African American reportedly whistled at a white woman, violating the racial norms of the Jim Crow South. For this supposed infraction, he was abducted, tortured, shot and dropped in a river with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck.
Yet for 49 years and 11 months, his murder was all but forgotten in the Delta – the first memorial to Till wasn’t dedicated until July 1, 2005.
Since then, however, the region has witnessed an unprecedented “memory boom.” More than US$4 million has been invested in dozens of roadside markers, a museum, two restored buildings, an interpretive center, a walking park and a community building.
But many details of what happened to Till on that fateful night remain murky, and the abrupt investment in his memory raises a series of questions. Who gets to tell this racially charged story? Who gets to decide what, exactly, happened? And what’s motivating the construction of these memorials?
My just-published book, “Remembering Emmett Till,” addresses these questions head on. It suggests that as Till’s story has been passed down through the generations and taken up by a range of memorials, its plot has been shaped by forces like poverty as much as by fidelity to historical fact.
This is nowhere more conspicuous than in the village of Glendora, a small community 150 miles south of Memphis, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Beset by poverty, the village clings desperately to a version of Till’s story that few others seem to believe.
A community mired in poverty
Glendora is saturated with memorials. The tiny town of five streets boasts 18 signs dedicated to the memory of Emmett Till’s 1955 murder. In addition, Glendora is also home to the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, a Till-themed park and the Black Bayou Bridge – a long-decommissioned bridge recently explored in a New York Times article as the site from which Till’s body may have been dropped in the water.
Glendora is also marked by breathtaking poverty. In an application for federal assistance, town officials noted that the Glendora median household income is 70% below the state average, 68% of families live below the poverty line, and just 18% of the adults have earned a high school education. According to numbers published by Glendora Mayor Johnny B. Thomas in 2017, 86% of children in the village live below the poverty line. Partners in Development, a nonprofit committed to helping the poorest of the poor, has chosen to focus on Haiti, Guatemala and Glendora, Mississippi.
The Glendora version of Till’s story is unique on two counts.
First, while virtually every 20th-century history of Till’s murder suggests that the murderers dropped the body in the Tallahatchie River, the commemorative work in Glendora suggests that Till was dropped into a tributary known as the Black Bayou from a bridge on the south side of Glendora. According to this account, the bayou then carried Till’s body for three miles to the Tallahatchie River, where it was recovered.
Second, while no historian has been able to say with certainty where the murderers obtained the fan they used to weigh down Till’s corpse, the Glendora museum claims that the fan was stolen from the Glendora Cotton Gin, presumably by Elmer Kimbell, a gin employee and the next-door neighbor of confessed murderer J. W. Milam.
While these variations on the finer points of Till’s story may seem like minutiae, to Glendora residents they are matters so weighty that it sometimes seems as if the very future of the town hinges on where Till’s body was dropped in the water and what fan weighed it down.
In 2010, the Mississippi Development Authority sent a team of economic development experts to Glendora. Their charge was to devise a plan to rescue the town from poverty – a tall order.
The team struggled to find solutions. Aside from the unrealistic suggestion that the town turn the snake-infested land along the bayou into “riverfront property,” the development authority’s only other proposal was that Glendora capitalize on its connection to the Till murder. More commemoration, they said, would bring tourists; tourism would beget economic development.
The viability of this suggestion, of course, turned on a version of Till’s story that maximized the relevance of Glendora. None of this was news to Mayor Thomas. Since at least 2005, he had been promoting a Glendora-centric narrative of the murder in which Till’s body was dropped in the Black Bayou tied with a fan from the local gin.
The state agency has invested more funds into Till’s commemoration than any other organization.
It restored the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, the site of the Till trial, and even invested $200,000 in the controversial restoration of Ben Roy’s Service Station in Money, Mississippi. Although the service station sits just 67 feet south of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the site of Till’s alleged whistle, it played no role in the Till murder, aside from unverified claims that customers discussed the murder from the porch.
The agency, however, is not convinced that Till’s body was dropped from the Black Bayou Bridge. Nor does the organization believe that the fan was stolen from the local gin.
In fact, the agency has, in its files, a five-page “Summary of Research” that’s dedicated to the contested veracity of these two claims. The document finds neither claim verifiable and has thus rejected every grant application the town has ever submitted.
Mayor Thomas has one state agency telling him to lean hard into Till’s story and another rejecting his every attempt to do so.
The mayor gets creative
Without the backing of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Thomas has nonetheless been able to erect tributes to Till’s legacy.
The work began on Sept. 27, 2005. On that day, the United States Department of Agriculture awarded a Community Connect Broadband Grant to Glendora. Funded at $325,405, the grant was intended to bring broadband connectivity to Glendora.
After obtaining the grant, Thomas used the USDA money to convert the old cotton gin into a community computer lab with internet access. But he also used some of the funds to construct the world’s first Emmett Till museum – the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center – which was also located in the gin. Although the USDA approved the expenses, it is unclear whether they knew that their money was being used to build a museum. In the 647 pages of records preserved by the USDA – including the application, labor contracts, invoices and correspondence – Emmett Till isn’t mentioned once.
After the grant ran out, Glendora couldn’t pay the bills and internet service was discontinued. It has not resumed. The museum, on the other hand, is still in operation and visitors do occasionally stop in, though the majority of tourists go to Sumner, a town 12 miles north of Glendora and the site of the trial.
While the museum was initially funded by the USDA, it is maintained on a day-to-day basis by the Glendora Economic and Community Development Corporation, a 501(c)3 founded by Thomas. The town has assigned most, if not all, public business to the nonprofit. Glendora’s development corporation pays city workers, operates 24 Section 8 apartments and operates the Till museum. According to public records, the public housing funnels about $100,000 a year of federal HUD money into the nonprofit. With this money, the nonprofit maintains the apartments, pays city workers and, critically, subsidizes the Till museum.
Yet the questions remain unanswered: Was Emmett Till actually dropped from the Black Bayou Bridge? Was the fan stolen from the local gin? Was Elmer Kimbell involved?
Perhaps. But it is impossible to separate the veracity of these claims from the poverty of the townspeople. Thomas has been able to leverage the town’s poverty to support the museum; the museum, in turn, supports Glendora’s plausible-but-unverifiable theories of Till’s murder. Had Glendora been wealthy, there’d be little incentive to stick so adamantly to this version of the story. The Black Bayou Bridge would be lost to memory and Elmer Kimbell would rarely appear in the stories of Till’s final night.
Lecrae wins a 2013 Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” (Photo courtesy of Newscom).
Two men. Both Black. Both Grammy award-winning hip-hop artists. Two completely different messages. Within one week both Lil’ Wayne and Lecrae made headlines for their music, but for very different reasons.
Last week, Christian hip-hop artist, Lecrae, won a Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. The prestige of music’s highest honor is noteworthy enough, but Lecrae’s achievement as a vocally Christian rapper is rare.
The part of the line that has caused so much controversy is the reference to Emmett Till. In 1955, Till, just 14 years old, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a White woman. The tragedy sent ripples across the nation as graphic images of the boy’s mutilated face (his mother had insisted on an open casket to display the brutality) were splashed across newspapers and magazines. The two White men charged in the crime were both acquitted by an all-White jury.
Wayne’s lyric serves as painful reminder of the importance of Black History month. Many will miss the offense of Wayne’s reference if they fail to understand the identity and significance of Emmet Till. The maiming of Till’s memory, however, is just the start.
Wayne’s words speak of doing violence to a woman’s reproductive organs and reveal the misogyny that has become commonplace and even celebrated in much of hip-hop. His line also reveals the distorted and grotesque picture of manhood – one that defines masculinity in terms of sexual exploits and violence – that he and other hip-hop artists often portray.
In contrast, Lecrae uses his lyrical talents to pen lines like, “Ain’t dope dealin’, ain’t Po pimpin’, talkin’ ‘bout my own folk killin’/ We on that Jesus soul healin” (from the song “Fakin‘”). Lecrae talks openly about being a Christian and makes it clear his faith drives his art. An urban evangelist, he hopes to use his talent to penetrate mainstream hip-hop with an alternative message for the listeners.
Lil’ Wayne is not the anti-Christ and Lecrae is not sinless. Each of these men, like all of us, are sinners. We all have wicked hearts and no one has lived in perfect obedience to God as we were designed to do. But there is a difference between these two artists. Redemption.
The Redemption of Culture and All Creation
I can’t make any judgments about Lil’ Wayne’s or Lecrae’s salvation. I simply see the fruits of each man’s life and art. Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics seem to be essentially human-centered. Instead of looking up, his lyrics encourage listeners to look within. By focusing only on the self, life becomes defined by personal pleasure and material prosperity. Lecrae’s music encourages people find their identity in God first, and then act in harmony with their status as God’s children.
As believers we must begin working out redemption here and now. Christ calls His followers the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a city on a hill (Mt. 5:13-15). So, culture-shaping cannot be left to an elite few. Whether a hip-hop artist, a hair stylist, or a health inspector, all Christians must strive to be agents of redemptive change wherever God has placed us. If we live this way then, in many respects, the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed life should look as stark as the contrast between Lil’ Wayne’s and Lecrae’s lyrics.
RELATED BY TRAGEDY: The death of 17-year-old Florida student Trayvon Martin (right) has sparked comparisons with the iconic death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago native who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a White woman.
I have an 18-year-old brother whom I love dearly. He’s an African American college freshman, and sometimes a knucklehead. He has all of the answers and therefore does not always listen to wise counsel. He has never been in trouble with the law, never used drugs, and has never drunk alcohol. Sometimes he leaves the house dressed in a suit. At other times, he leaves dressed in sweats. His attire doesn’t give anyone a license to kill him.
The reality is, I sometimes leave home looking both ways myself. I choose how I dress and what is appropriate for lunch with my girlfriends or a quick grocery-store run. If someone approached me at either location with an armed weapon and I feared for my life, I would do everything I could to defend myself and so would you.
HE COULD'VE BEEN MY BROTHER: Images of Trayvon Martin reminded the author of her own younger brother, pictured above. (Photos by Deronta Robinson)
My initial response to Trayvon Martin’s death was, “That could have been my brother.” As I witness the media hysteria build around the case, I have to sit back for a moment and take inventory of our culture. It would be quite easy to write a Facebook status or change my profile picture to an image of myself in a hoodie. It’s quite easy to march for a day or protest for a month. We may blog about the case, read an article, or discuss it with friends at work, or a Black preacher may shout about this injustice from the pulpit on a particular Sunday, maybe even two, but eventually, we will forget.
The danger in our current outrage is that we might turn Trayvon Martin into a symbol, when in fact he was a real teenager. Some have drawn comparisons between Trayvon and Emmett Till, the Chicago teen whose brutal murder by Mississippi racists in the 1950s helped mobilize the civil rights movement. One commentator suggests Trayvon’s death may be “our Emmett Till moment.”
Trayvon is not the modern-day Emmett Till. Our attention spans are much too short for that, and our thirst for the next trending topic is much too great. We will forget Trayvon Martin. It may not be this week, this month, or this year, but eventually we will all forget.
This is the travesty of the Trayvon Martin situation: injustices like this occur against poor and minority children every day in this country and many pretend not to know. Black-on-Black crime is still real, often effectively ending the lives of both parties. Black kids are still dropping out of school at alarming rates. Young Black men are still checking into prison at rates comparable to those who enroll in college, and too many of them are being raised in homes without fathers. They are struggling in failing public schools. Gangs are lurching around those schools and targeting our children on the streets. Every day young girls are born into welfare-type situations and growing up to repeat the cycles modeled by their mothers simply because they have not witnessed an alternative. These children lose hope long before the age of 18, and as a result they often descend into committing crimes against humanity. We are all guilty. We cut the lives of these kids short and murder them with our complacency and our silence.
Why? Because we are busy. As individuals, we have personal goals of success to pursue. We have to raise our own kids. Our churches are busy with a bunch of good programs and activities which cater to our children. We ignore large chunks of the Bible because they are disruptive to our current lifestyles. Remember the part when Jesus returns and all nations of people are gathered before him? Here is the qualification for entering God’s heavenly kingdom on that day:
“For I [Jesus] was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothe me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:31-40).
Then Jesus proceeds to curse and turn away those who respond in the opposite manner. In this passage, Jesus is not asking whether or not someone recited a profession of faith or was baptized. He is simply asking, “How did you live?” See, the gospel is not something to simply accept and show up for on Sunday mornings. The gospel is life — our day-to-day choices of what we are going to prioritize. Are we going to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and whether or not we are going to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves? That is the critical question that we must ask ourselves every day of our lives. The answer to that question will make all the difference.
The question marks surrounding the Trayvon Martin case may never be resolved. It’s possible that the man who shot him will never be charged. But Trayvon’s life already has been laid down. The question is: Are you willing to lay down your life for those like him?
What are you going to do, Christian? What are you going to do, Church? Are we going to turn our frustrations into something positive that has a lasting impact? Are we going to turn the tide and reclaim responsibility for our children? Are we going get into the schools and communities to teach, mentor, and tutor our young people and equip their mothers and fathers to be better parents? Are we going to continue to murder, or are we going to choose life?