Emmett Till: Then and Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jan Edmiston

Emmett Till was murdered more than 60 years ago and since that terrible day, more than 10 books have been written to tell the story. But Timothy B. Tyson’s book, The Blood of Emmett Till, is especially timely for a 21st century audience, telling the story once again within the context of the increasingly reported deaths of so many unarmed black men as well as the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

There was a time when the murders of unarmed black men and boys went largely unreported. And while hundreds more have been killed since Emmett Till, some of their names are part of our national liturgy of lament: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Clementa Pinckney, Freddy Gray. “America is still killing Emmett Till,” writes Tyson, but we are increasingly speaking the names of men and women of color who have died in the throes of racial bias and white supremacy. We are called to be like Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, and not allow victims of racially motivated deaths to be forgotten.

There was a time when the NAACP was considered a radical organization – much like the Black Lives Matter movement has been decried by some today. Timothy Tyson points out the NAACP was once considered to be “a left-wing power-mad organ of destruction” which had been “infiltrated by communist sympathizers.” Similarly incendiary descriptions of Black Lives Matter can be heard today even though that organization’s stated mission is to affirm “black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” We are reminded in The Blood of Emmett Till that what was once considered radical can become mainstream – and treasured – when we consider the true life experiences of people we have ignored.

Tyson’s book reminds us about the essential nature of testimony. It was his interview of Carolyn Bryant for this book which led to her to admit that Emmett Till never assaulted her in that tiny Mississippi grocery store in 1955. We are reminded what happens when we live by fear even in the face of cultural pressures. False narrative kills.

And we are also reminded that brave truths spoken even at the risk of death is what God has called us to speak today. Tyson powerfully describes what it meant for witnesses like Frank Young and Moses Wright to be brave in the face of darkness. Even though – as expected – the murderers of Emmett Till were found not guilty, the testimony spoken by brave witnesses in the 1950s bolsters our own courage for these days.

If you are just now “waking up white” after reading Debby Irving’s book, reading Tyson’s book about distant days – which are not so distant after all – will further stir a desire to dismantle racism. You may be completely familiar with the story of Emmett Till, but is an important read for our time.


Jan Edmiston serves as Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Jan was born, raised, and educated in Chapel Hill, NC, where she grew up in the University Presbyterian Church. She attended Andover-Newton Theological School and was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. She later earned a Doctor of Ministry in Christian Spirituality from Columbia Theological Seminary.She currently serves as Associate Executive Presbyter for Ministry at the Presbytery of Chicago.Edmiston blogs at A Church for Starving Artists. Throughout her parish ministry years, Edmiston served as moderator of the social justice committee and personnel committee, and took leadership roles in the areas of church revitalization, new church development, and presbytery council.

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  1. […] Jan Edmiston, co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly, lives out part of her vocation and reminds us to do the same saying, “We are called to be like Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, and not allow victims of racially motivated deaths to be forgotten.” […]

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