Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Ballad of Emmett Till

Today, thanks to the wonderful folks at the Center for American Progress here in Washington, I viewed the moving documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (produced and directed by Keith Beauchamp) for the second time.

In 2004, I first saw this stunning work on PBS as part of a special series on civil rights in America. The director, a young African American from Louisiana, became obsessed with the infamous 1955 case after viewing the dead boy's photo in Jet magazine as a child. He dug deeper, using his prodigious skills both as a filmmaker and as an investigative journalist, and found significant new evidence, as well as several key witnesses who had never been questioned. Getting their amazing stories on film and getting the film shown has opened the floodgates; the Justice Department reopened both the Till case, and the case of the 1964 "Freedom Summer" triple murder in Philadelphia, Miss., recently garnering a long overdue conviction in the latter. What once seemed impossible now seems unstoppable--in the words of Dr. King, justice flowing like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Slowly but surely, justice is indeed being done, and a new generation is learning about a dark past which some of us remember all too clearly, a past which is not really that long gone. And it is easy to spout platitudes and feel as though we have moved on from those bad times, that we are somehow "better than that" now. The sad truth is that we are not. Separate but equal is alive and well in the United States if you look closely enough. So are hate and fear and torture and death.

Is it 2005 or 1955? How far have we really come in this country? In Laramie, Wyo., in Jasper, Tex., in Detroit, Mich.--even in New York City--how far have we really come?

The Death of Emmett Till
Words and Music by Bob Dylan

Twas down in Mississippi no so long ago,
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door.
This boy's dreadful tragedy I can still remember well,
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.
They said they had a reason, but I can't remember what.
They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat.
There was screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street.

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain.
The reason that they killed him there, and I'm sure it ain't no lie,
Was just for the fun of killin' him and to watch him slowly die.

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime,
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.

I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin' down the courthouse stairs.
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.

If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

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