NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - What would justice look like for Emmett Till 64 years after his death became a symbol of the U.S. civil rights movement?
Rutgers scholar Christine Zemla traveled to the Mississippi Delta to pose that question to the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin and the last living eyewitness to his abduction, in preparation for her new fall course, “Remembering Emmett Till.”
“Till’s story is Trayvon Martin’s story. It’s Michael Brown’s story. It’s the continuing story of African-American boys who are still being targeted without justice served,” said Zemla, a professor in the Department of American Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “I want students to know the roots of his history, so they can have a deeper understanding of what still needs to be done.”
In 1955, Till, who was 14, traveled from Chicago to Mississippi to visit relatives. He went to a local grocery store to buy candy and was accused of whistling at a white woman who ran the store with her husband. A few days later, the husband and his half-brother abducted and murdered Till and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother held an open-casket funeral for her son, whose death prompted a national outcry.
Zemla first traveled to Mississippi in 2007 on vacation with her husband. The only place she knew to visit in connection with Till was the Bryant grocery store where his story began. She was fascinated by the people she encountered, the atmosphere of the Delta and the dark history that became the roots of positive change. She has returned every year since then to immerse herself in Till’s story.
“Every year, I visit a new site and meet a new person and learn more about his story,” she said. “All of the photos, interviews and authors I’ve spoken to will become a vital part of this course. This is unlike anything else I’ve ever taught. I want the students to feel like they are there, and I want them to understand his story is still alive in Mississippi.”
Zemla’s course will take students back to the 1600s to show how race has influenced life in North America, starting with slavery, then through the Civil War, reconstruction, the 1960s and current times. Students will read from two books by authors she has encountered in her travels: Devery Anderson’s Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (Race, Rhetoric, and Media Series) and Dave Tell’s Remembering Emmett Till, for which she named her course.
“Anderson’s book offers a well-documented chronology of what happened, and Tell’s book focuses on ways in which the events of 1955 have been commemorated in the Delta. Till is the pivot point of the course, but in order to understand his story, we need to go back, bring it up to the event and then look forward,” Zemla said, adding that she hopes to one day take her students to the Mississippi Delta to see the Till-related sites.
This summer, Zemla attended a workshop at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, led by Rutgers alumnus Rolando Herts, which led to her meeting with Till’s cousin, Parker. When asked what justice would look like, Zemla said he quoted Romans 12:19: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
“My understanding of what he is trying to say is that it’s not up to us to try to avenge the sins of others. At this point, he will leave it up to God to right the wrongs,” Zemla said, adding that Parker may come to Rutgers and speak to students in her course. “What better way to bring Till’s story to New Jersey than to hear his story from Rev. Parker himself.”
Zemla said one of her goals is to help remove the dark image of the Mississippi Delta.
“Every time I return I fall more in love with the Mississippi Delta and I’d love for people to see it the way that I do. In spite of its troubled past there is a growing sense of unity, healing and a sense of racial reconciliation. We can’t forget the past, but we can learn from it - not just in the Mississippi Delta but everywhere. I hope that students feel this way after they take this course,” Zemla said.