Remembering Emmett Till
In today’s episode, World Footprints welcomes Shanna Martin, director of training and professional development at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Shanna walked us through an exhibit about the Emmett Till, the young child who was brutally murdered by white supremacists in the 1955 Jim Crow Mississippi. The exhibit is entitled Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See.
The Let the World See exhibit tells both Emmett’s story but also illuminates the courage of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who insisted on an open casket funeral for her son so that the world could see the brutality of his senseless murder. Her act fueled a movement that changed the nation.
Join us as we remember Emmett Till, recount the bravery of Mamie Till-Mobley and learn about a connection with Rosa Parks.
[02:03] What inspired the Children’s Museum to open the Emmett Till exhibit
[03:09] A preview of the Emmett Till exhibit
[05:40] Life in a 1955 Mississippi and a warning to Emmett
[07:24] Wheeler Parker’s recorded message
[09:00] Who was Emmett Till?
[11:32] The criminal trial and efforts to sabotage the trial’s outcome
[13:48] The connection between Emmett’s murder and Rosa Park’s defiance
[15:07] Sound and light show: A narration of Emmett Till’s story
[17:12] Lessons from Emmett’s story
- The exhibit tells five key stories: Emmett’s personal story; the bravery of Mamie Till-Mobley’s actions; the work behind keeping Emmett’s story alive; how the vandalized historical marker connects us to today, and how we can commit to social justice in our communities.
- There are a lot of people who don’t know the story or didn’t know the story until we started talking about it or until we opened this exhibit.
- All of the other kids with Emmett in Mississippi were aware that Emmett was going to experience some trouble but they didn’t imagine that he would be tortured and murdered.
- Emmett was known for being a jokester, and was kind of light-hearted and always wanted to make people laugh and kind of be the center of attention without understanding and recognizing what that meant in terms of his actions.
- Over 100,000 people witnessed his body because they had it on display for three days.
- The criminal trial had an all-white, all-male jury that only deliberated for 67 minutes.
- If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture where we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.
- Sept. 17–Oct. 30, 2022 | The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (Indianapolis, IN)
- Nov. 19, 2022–Jan. 8, 2023 | Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Birmingham, AL)
- Jan. 28–March 12, 2023 | Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library (Washington, DC)
- April 1–May 14, 2023 | Two Mississippi Museums (Jackson, MS)
- June 3–July 16, 2023 | DuSable Museum of African American History (Chicago, IL)
- Aug. 5–Sept. 17, 2023 | Atlanta History Center (Atlanta, GA)
- Oct. 7–Nov. 19, 2023 | National Civil Rights Museum (Memphis, TN)
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[00:00:09.240] – Shanna
As part of the Civil Rghts Movement. Rosa Parks said that she was thinking about Emmett when she sat at the back of the bus, at the front of the bus and refused to get up, which I think is a part of history that we missed. We learned a lot about Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t even until I started really researching Emmett Till that I realized that she made the connection with Emma, that she was just tired. She was tired of how Blacks were being treated and that there was no justice and she was not going to move.
[00:00:38.010] – Tonya
Welcome. You’re listening to World Footprints. I’m Tonya Fitzpatrick.
[00:00:43.310] – Ian
And I’m Ian Fitzpatrick. You’ve just heard a clip from our interview with Shanna Martin, Director of Training and Professional Development at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, who walked us through an exhibit about the brutal murder of Emmett Till and the courage of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley to let the world see his face.
[00:01:05.660] – Tonya
Emmett Till was just a 14 year old child when, in 1955, white supremacists in the Jim Crow South kidnapped, tortured, and murdered him. They tried to COVID it up. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, insisted that the world know what they did to her son. She bravely shared her child’s disfigured face and the story of his brutal murder with all who would listen. Her act fueled a movement that changed the nation.
[00:01:35.140] – Ian
Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley: Let the World See is a touring exhibit created in collaboration with the Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley Institute, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the Till family and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. While the Black community is heralding the movie that has brought the story of Emmett Till to life, many still remember the picture of his disfigured face in his open coffin that Jet Magazine published.
[00:02:03.210] – Tonya
So how is it that an exhibit about this haunting and unspeakable event finds its way into a children’s museum?
[00:02:11.740] – Shanna
So this came about. Our current CEO and president actually became aware of the historical markers that were being placed in Mississippi that helped show where parts of Emmett story happened. Those historical signs are being vandalized. They were being shot up. They were being thrown in the river. She found out about those historical markers and wanted to know what was happening with them, what was being done with them, because we are an object based learning institution. So, long story short, it led to a conversation with the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Mississippi, us obtaining one of the historical markers for our permanent collection, and then the other one will travel with the exhibit. And the conversation started and we ended with what I consider a very beautiful exhibit and an opportunity to really raise awareness to tell the story about Emmett Till and his mother.
[00:03:06.490] – Tonya
Can we go through?
[00:03:07.570] – Shanna
[00:03:09.190] – Ian
The exhibit tells five key stories. Emmett’s personal story. How the brave actions of Emmett’s mom, Mamie Till Mobley, fueled the Civil Rights Movement. How a community and family have worked to keep Emmett’s memory alive. How the vandalized historical marker connects us to today. How we can commit to social justice in our own communities.
[00:03:32.810] – Tonya
Conversations about Emmett Till’s murder seemed to peak in 2022. The movie Till was released, a documentary about Emmett Till was produced, and now this traveling exhibit that launched in the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. So I asked Shanna if there was any significance to 2022 in the Till story.
[00:03:57.640] – Shanna
I don’t think on our end there was a specific time frame in mind. Again, all of this, I think, kind of came about organically and the timing just happened, that there were all of these other things happening as well. And so it is perfect timing that we’re able to bring this exhibit at the same time. But there’s also lots of other ways that Emmett story is being told so that more people have an opportunity, both from our youngest visitors all the way up to older people who don’t know and aren’t aware of Emmett’s story.
[00:04:28.270] – Tonya
Wow, I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t know the story.
[00:04:32.040] – Shanna
You would be surprised. There are a lot of people who don’t know the story or didn’t know the story until we started talking about it or until we opened this exhibit. So the name of the exhibit is Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley: Let the World See. And this is the entry panel that just tells a little bit about what the exhibit is about and also has a warning so that families are aware that the exhibit contains some graphic information. It contains information about racially motivated violence. So they are aware and have an opportunity to choose whether or not they want to bring their children into the exhibit. And it is recommended for children that are aged ten and older. And then the rest of the exhibit really is a progression of Emmett’s story and so kind of walks families through how Emmett’s story came to be. So we start with his life in Chicago, normalizing him as a kid, he was 14 years old. He loved to ride his bike. He loved spending time with family. He was an only child, kind of the, you know, the apple of his mother’s eye and his grandmother’s.
[00:05:41.740] – Ian
Mamie warned Emmett that life in Mississippi’s Jim Crow South was very different from life in Chicago.
[00:05:48.460] – Shanna
And his mother was very much a, you know, she was worried and scared to send him to Mississippi. But in those times, we probably both have family that may have lived in the South at one time. And during the Great Migration, families moved from Mississippi up North. So there were a lot of Emmett’s family that was still in Mississippi. And so it was pretty common for family members living in the north to send their kids down or to go visit Mississippi in the summertime to spend time. So kind of like part of their summer vacation would be spent in Mississippi. And so that’s how Emmett was able to go visit his cousin, who was also his best friend. Wheeler Parker was going to visit for some time during the summer, and so Emmett convinced his mom to let him go.
[00:06:33.190] – Tonya
At the beginning of the exhibit, there’s a suitcase with a video depicting life in Mississippi and a reflection of train tracks on the floor representing Emmett’s train journey.
[00:06:44.940] – Shanna
This just talks a little bit about what life was like in Mississippi then. So a little bit of what life was like for Emmett in Chicago, but the transition to what life was like in Mississippi in the 1950s. So about the Jim Crow laws and about Emmett’s mother having conversations with him so that he would know what to expect to the extent that you can know what to expect, and sort of some guidance on how he should and should not behave when in Mississippi in order to keep himself safe. And then this is a copy of a letter that Emmett wrote to his mom, and it was the last correspondence she ever received from him.
[00:07:24.430] – Ian
The next panel in the exhibit included an old rotary phone with a recorded message.
[00:07:30.960] – Shanna
It’s funny to hear the kids say, what is that? It’s a telephone. So yeah. So this panel, this area talks about what happened in terms of Emmett whistling at Carolyn Bryant and kind of the aftermath of that event. And the phone, if you pick it up and listening to it, it is Reverend Wheeler Parker talking about what happened because he, again, was an eyewitness. He was at the store. He was also there the night that Emmett was kidnapped.
[00:08:01.990] – Male Announcer
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[00:08:36.860] – Tonya
“A quiet snow globe of pain I want to shake while the flakes fall like ash we race the train to reach the place Emmett Till last whistled or smiled or did nothing” – Poet Kevin Young. Here’s more of our conversation with Shanna Martin from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in the Emmett Till exhibit.
[00:09:00.560] – Shanna
It appears from the stories, from the things I’ve read in the accounts, that Emmett was known as being a jokester and he was kind of lighthearted and really always wanted to make people laugh and kind of be the center of attention without understanding and recognizing what that really meant in terms of his actions down there. So, yes, all of the other kids were very well aware that what happened was going to end up causing him at some trouble, but not necessarily imagined what the end result was. And so next we have that talks about the incident, the kidnapping and the murder. And then this area talks about Emmett’s mom’s decision to have an open casket and what that meant and what happened as a result of her having an open casket, which is why it’s kind of titled: Emmett’s Funeral: The World Watched. And then the interactive in this area, one of the areas actually has the photo of Emmett’s decomposed body. So families are warning labels and families have the choice to look at the Jet Magazine. So at the time, Black media outlets really published the story, talked about it, they showed the photos, whereas white media outlets did not.
[00:10:22.160] – Shanna
And they actually talked about, when I was visiting Mississippi, how people in Mississippi weren’t aware of what was happening because the media outlets in Mississippi were not talking about this and weren’t sharing this story. So people in Chicago were very well aware of Emmett’s story, but folks who actually lived in Mississippi were not.
[00:10:43.690] – Tonya
When did they become aware?
[00:10:46.310] – Shanna
I think there are some people who still are not aware that live in Mississippi and the history books teach the story and tell it in a much different way than how we’re presenting it here. And even you can tell the difference between the Jet Magazine and then look magazine is the magazine that Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam kind of confessed and shared their story of what happened in very different accounts. And they’re actually footage and photos from the funeral. So families have an opportunity to look at that. They said over 100,000 people witnessed his body because they had it on display for three days, I believe.
[00:11:30.000] – Tonya
[00:11:32.060] – Tonya
Our tour of the exhibit took us to an area that focused on the criminal trial.
[00:11:36.520] – Shanna
So raises awareness about the fact that it was an all-white all-male jury, that they only deliberated for 67 minutes. And a part of that story includes them asking for Coke and kind of hanging out to make it seem like it was taking longer for them to make the decision than what it really took for them to do. People of color and women were not allowed to vote at that time. And in order to be chosen for a jury, you had to be able to vote.
[00:12:04.650] – Ian
In this same exhibit area, there was an interactive feature that offers a glimpse into the activities during the trial.
[00:12:12.810] – Shanna
There was a sketch artist that was in during the trial. And so families can click on the different sketches and learn about what was happening during that part of the trial. They can see who the witnesses were, what the testimony was. So it kind of digs in a little deeper about the various aspects of the trial.
[00:12:34.420] – Tonya
Although it was a given. I asked about witness tampering and other efforts to sabotage the outcome of the trial.
[00:12:41.910] – Shanna
They were actually there was actually no attempt to find any witnesses at all from the sheriff and the authorities that were involved. So no attempt to find witnesses. Members of the NAACP actually went undercover and discovered some witnesses that came forth. There were actually two gentlemen that they later found out had been placed in jail in a different county under different names so that they could not be located to be able to testify because they were eyewitnesses as to what happened as well.
[00:13:13.740] – Shanna
This area talks about how Mamie’s actions to have an open casket to let the world see what had happened to her son really did help to kind of fuel and spark the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement had actually started in the 1940s, but it was really her actions that led to what became known as the Till generation, which were young people who sat at the whites only lunch counters, who marched in protest. Your John Lewis’s – people that I’ve grown up knowing as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks said that she was thinking about Emmett when she sat at the back of the bus, at the front of the bus and refused to get up, which I think is a part of history that we missed.
[00:13:56.820] – Shanna
We learned a lot about Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t even until I started really researching Emmett Till that I realized that she made the connection with Emma, that she was just tired. She was tired of how Blacks were being treated and that there was no justice and she was not going to move. This area talks about Tallahatchie County and the community, specifically where Emmett’s story took place. And it talks a lot about the historical marker and how that became a symbol. After 50 years, this community finally came together to acknowledge what had happened, to apologize to the Till family in a very public ceremony. And then they started putting up the historical markers. And as you can see, the historical markers have been shot up. They’ve been picked up and thrown in the river. And the community has continued to replace them over and over and over again as a sign that they’re not going to they’re going to continue to tell the truth about what happened. But it’s also a sign to the rest of us that there continues to be racial hate and violence and discrimination and prejudice and all of that, and that this cannot be ignored.
[00:15:07.540] – Ian
As we were ending our tour of the exhibit, we stopped to listen to a narration of Emmett’s story.
[00:15:13.830] – Shanna
This is what we refer to as a sound and light show, which really is kind of, I would say a mini movie that really sort of sums up the story. So particularly for kids and families who may not be interested in reading all of this or maybe new to the story, actually, for our school groups, we have them start here because it really does give an overview of Image story and what happened. It talks about the historical markers, sort of defines racial violence, et cetera. And it’s about eight to nine minutes long.
[00:15:49.460] – Exhibit Audio
Despite the intent…
[00:16:09.110] – Shanna
Yes. It’s a heavy one for sure. We have an opportunity and talk a lot. I mean, a lot of our exhibits that tell difficult stories, we want people to leave thinking about how they can make a difference or make a change or do something that creates for us. It’s all about Mamie’s Ripple for Justice. And so we talk a little bit about how to be a change maker. So by providing support, raising your voice, changing the system, sharing your vision, sharing the truth, and then identify what that looked like in connection with Emmett’s story, and then talk a little bit more in our facilitated programs and in the Ripple for Justice interactive to ask kids and families, like, how can they be a change maker? What is something they can do in their own community, whether that’s at home or in school, or to be able to kind of keep Mamie’s Ripple for Justice going.
[00:17:12.130] – Tonya
There were a lot of new things I learned about the Emmett Till story as we walked through it. For example, Rosa Parks and how Emmett Till’s death influenced her decision not to get up out of her seat, and certainly how the NAACP had undercover operatives trying to find witnesses for the trial. There were a lot of interesting things that came out of this exhibit and I’m excited for it to tour the country.
[00:17:46.180] – Ian
Given the pain associated with this story, the curation of this exhibit for children had to take on a different approach?
[00:17:59.470] – Tonya
Right. They were very, very careful. The Children’s Museum worked in concert with the Emmett Till Foundation and other people who have worked very hard to keep Mamie Till Mobley’s story alive and to share the full narrative of the story in a respectful manner. And so I think it’s very valuable to teach this history because, as I mentioned, I didn’t learn the story of Emmett Till wilst in school. And, you know, I think it’s a good lesson. I think it’s an important piece of history for people to learn and know about today.
[00:18:42.730] – Tonya
Author Timothy B. Tyson wrote in The Blood of Emmett Till: “Because if we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture where we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.”
[00:19:01.100] – Tonya
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[00:19:19.920] – Ian
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[00:19:35.230] – Tonya
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[00:19:52.100] – Female Announcer
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