Deborah Watts, co-founder and board president of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, led a discussion on inclusion and injustice following a showing of “Who Killed Emmett Till?” last Thursday evening in the Argonaut Athletic Club.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was murdered after allegedly whistling at and flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old Caucasian woman, during a visit to Money, Miss. in the summer of 1955. Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River days later.
Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and J.W. Milam, Roy’s half brother, are believed to have kidnapped, tortured and murdered Till on the night of Aug. 28, 1955. They were charged and acquitted for kidnapping and murder. Months later, Bryant and Milam confessed to Till’s murder in a magazine article.
Watts was introduced by Mamie Hixon, assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Lab, before the showing of the documentary. Hixon met Watts four years ago during a book club meeting and discovered that Watts is a cousin of Emmett Till.
Hixon said Till’s story sparked discussion on the topic of racism last Thursday.
“Discussion is the key to inclusion and diversity,” she said. “You need all ethnicities participating in interactive discussion and hearing both sides. I think that’s what tonight’s message was about, allowing people to talk, because often we just don’t talk about race or racism.”
Hixon said it’s rare to see different people from different walks of life come together to discuss such a controversial topic, but acknowledging events in history such as Till’s death is needed to reassure that history won’t repeat itself.
Watts opened the floor for questions about Till’s story and discussion about inclusion and injustice after the documentary.
Rose Marshall, a junior community health education major, spoke during the discussion about how stories, like Till’s, should not be used as a way of hate.
“You can’t just sit and be bitter about the past,” Marshall said. “You’ve got to deal with it. Let’s not let that happen again. We have to come together to make something better for all of us, not just for the black people, not just for the whites, but the purples and everybody.”
Erika Neat, a freshman marine biology major, came to the discussion for extra credit but became passionate about the topic because it reminded her of her old high school, Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization.
“There was a big drive my sophomore year of high school to get that name changed especially because of the demographic around that school,” Neat said. “It was degrading to go to a high school that was named after a leader of the KKK. It saddened me that such a drive of white resistance was against that change.”
Being Christian inspired Neat to refer to a verse in the Bible, Ephesians 4:29, that states: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
“I feel like gossip is a huge topic,” she said. “And I feel like we really need to stay away from that and be conscious of how we make other people feel with our actions and what we say.”
Before the discussion came to a close, Watts invited students from the audience to lead a pledge on racism, hatred, injustice and crimes against youth. The “Never Again” pledge was inspired by Till’s story and written by college students.
Till’s case was reopened in 2004 after Keith Beauchamp, producer and director of the film, “The Untold Story of Emmett Till,” found people accused of involvement with Till’s kidnapping and murder. There wasn’t any progress in the case, it was closed in 2006, but Till’s story still resonates with people exposed to the Civil Rights Movement.
Justice was never found, but Watts said she “gets to channel those disappointments into hope.” For that reason, she continues to discuss Till’s story with people across the country.
“Who Killed Emmett Till?” originally aired on the Black Family Channel in 2005. The 45-minute documentary chronicled the events leading up to the death of Till and the aftermath. The discussion was the final event of the Inclusion Series Spotlight hosted by Inclusion Services and Programs at the university.
“A Living Museum: Unearthing Common Ground” will be the program’s end-of-the-year event, which will be held April 1 at 6:30 p.m. in the University Commons Auditorium. The event will feature faculty, staff and students who will act as important figures throughout history.