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Who was Emmett Till?

by Jaclyn Deal, student writer

It’s been 65 years since 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi and more than three decades since the Eyes on the Prize documentary examined his death as seminal to the Civil Rights Movement. But a retelling of the story by researcher Davis Houck at Wingate University Wednesday night helped students realize the significance of the teenager’s death.

Davis Houck

Dr. Houck, a Florida State University professor of rhetoric studies, shared his findings and helped to correct misconceptions associated with the lynching. He said Till, a Chicago native, traveled to Money, Mississippi, to stay with his great-uncle. While visiting, he was brutally beaten and then shot in the head for flirting with a white woman in her family’s grocery store. Till’s body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River. When two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were tried for the murder, an all-male, all-white jury found them not guilty.

The lynching sparked outrage within black communities. Till’s corpse was returned to Chicago for three days of public viewing.

“The case of Emmett Till kickstarted the Civil Rights Movement and has been a main pillar in a decades-long movement that still shapes our world today,” said student Jaylen Foust, following the "Who Was Emmett Till?" Lyceum event held in the Batte Center Recital Hall. “It is important to remember the case because it is impossible to understand where you’re going until you understand your history.”

Dr. Houck described his recent visits to the Money, Mississippi, region and the racial tensions which still exist, more than six decades after Till’s killing.

“This Lyceum helped me to see details about the case that history seems to have forgotten. Growing up black, the Emmett Till case is something I’ve always known about, and I believe there are definitely still a lot of open wounds within the black community over this case,” said student Debrayah Turner. 

Dr. Houck closed the event with thoughts on forgiveness and reconciliation. He said Till’s first cousin, Simeon Wright, who witnessed the kidnapping, forgave the murderers years before his death in 2017.

“We’re making history right now. The Mississippi Delta region and other southern regions still have a lot of healing to do over the case of Emmett Till,” Houck said.

His talk was one of a number of events slated as part of Wingate’s Black History Month observance

February 6, 2020