Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring Emmett Till on MLK Day January 17, 2022

My community is marking MLK Day, not with a breakfast as planned and promoted in this poster, but rather virtually, due to COVID. (Source: Faribault Diversity Coalition Facebook)

EMMETT TILL. I should recognize that name, right? But, up until watching a limited ABC television series, “Women of the Movement,” I hadn’t heard of this 14-year-old African American murdered in August 1955. Two white men were charged with the crime, and then found not guilty by a Mississippi jury. Till’s death led his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to take action. And that sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

A St. Olaf College student watches a video that includes Martin Luther King Jr. during a “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at the college in 2015. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

I should haven known all of this. And the reality that I didn’t weighs on me as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day today.

Eight years to the date after Emmett died, 250,000 people gathered in DC for the March on Washington for jobs and freedom. During this event, King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Skin color matters not, as showcased in this section of a Stephen Somerstein photo featured in a 2015 exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

I expect young Emmett, who lived in Chicago with his mother, but was visiting family in Mississippi when he died, had dreams. He had his entire life ahead of him. His mother warned him, before he headed south on the train, that attitudes toward African Americans differed from those in the north. She advised him to be careful. Cautious around white people. He was reportedly killed after flirting with a married white woman in a shop.

It’s encouraging to see signs like this in small town Minnesota. I photographed this in October 2020 in Kenyon, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

His death is tragic beyond words. His grieving mother determined to carry on, to reveal the truth, to raise awareness. Mamie Till Mobley spent the rest of her life speaking about racial injustice. And that began with her decision to have an open casket. She wanted the world to see her son—how he had been beaten, shot, his eyes gouged out before his body was tossed into the river.

As I watched this real-life story unfold in the television drama, I sobbed. At the unfathomable cruelty. At the senselessness. At the grief of a mother who endured the unthinkable.

Just months after Emmett’s death, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon thereafter, a 26-year-old pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., called for a city-wide bus boycott.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2020)

And here we are today, decades later, with racial injustice issues still existing. Certainly, progress has been made. But in recent years, it feels like we’ve regressed. Discrimination. Efforts to squelch voting rights. Murder. Hatred flaring.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the St. Olaf exhibit and express their thoughts. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015)

I admire Mamie Till Mobley for her courage and tenacity. Her strength. Now it’s up to each of us to honor her son by doing our part. Love. Respect. Speak up. Care. Do what we can to assure that no other mother—although there have been many since—loses a child to hatred.

Photographed in a storefront window of a downtown Faribault, Minnesota, business. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2018)

Thoughts?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling