Many of my students know the song “Karate Chop” in which Lil Wayne brings out the name of Emmett Till — and laughs — in a reference too vulgar to repeat here. I’m wondering, however, how many know who Emmett Till was. Some may identify him as “someone involved in civil rights”, which would be an acceptable test answer. They may not realize that he was an unwilling civil rights symbol, as he died at age 14 after being attacked by a white group of adults in the summer of 1955. What did he do? He may have whistled at a white woman. Maybe. He was from Chicago and was visiting Mississippi, and his “northern attitude” may have provided motivation. The men beat him, gouged out an eye, shot him in the head and threw his body the river.
J.W. Milam, one of those men who was acquitted in court but later confessed to the murder, was quoted a year later in Look magazine:
“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”
He killed Emmett Till, and ended up dying in the 1980s, perfectly content and with no regrets.
So, as we look at the future of education and focus more on job preparedness and test scores, we miss some of history’s most disturbing and resonating stories. Emmett Till died decades ago, but there have been many Emmett Tills since his death. We have learned nothing. It was a case which shocked the North, but no one remembers today. It is not a part of the new standardized, test driven curriculum championed by Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama.
No one remembers, and when no one remembers, nothing will change.
Note: J.W. Milam had a ninth grade education, and left rural Mississippi only to fight in World War II. His critical thinking skills were clearly lacking. Lil Wayne dropped out of school when he was 14. Emmett Till would have been a ninth grader at age 14.