‘He Had a Life Before Death’: Remembering Emmett Till for the Child He WasBreaking News
tags: racism, civil rights, African American history, lynching, Emmett Till, Mississippi
Ollie Gordon was only 7 years old in August 1955, when the life that she shared with three generations of her family, including her cousin Emmett Till, on the South Side of Chicago was overturned.
Emmett, 14, had traveled to visit relatives in the Mississippi Delta, where he was abducted by two white men. His body was found days later in a river, mutilated and beaten with a bullet in the head.
“That was the first death that my parents and siblings had experienced,” Ms. Gordon said in an interview this week. “Then to know that he was taken by white men — we would have nightmares that somebody was going to come and take us.”
Ms. Gordon, 73, reflected on her cousin’s life ahead of what would have been his 80th birthday on Sunday, as well as on the echoes of his death in the events of 2020, with the killing of George Floyd also galvanizing a civil rights movement.
“I understand it when someone is called ‘the new Emmett Till,’” she said. “They don’t know what else to compare it to. A lynching can still be a lynching without the hanging.”
The past 18 months have also been a period of deep personal pain for Ms. Gordon. Her daughter, Airickca Gordon-Taylor, who led an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of Emmett and his mother, died in March after living with kidney problems for decades.
I spoke with her this week, and our conversation below has been condensed and lightly edited.
Most people remember Emmett Till for his death, but you knew him in life. What do you remember of your time together in Chicago?
We actually lived in the same apartment. My parents migrated from Mississippi to Chicago in the early ’50s, and I was born in ’48. We lived in the family building.
I was around him when I was 3 to 7. He was more of a sibling than a cousin.
He was a jokester; he loved to make people laugh. There was a time when he took two dollar bills, and in between them he had cut up newspaper pages to the same size. With a dollar bill on the top and one on the bottom, it looked like he made a big wad of money. He showed it to his mom. She asked: “Where did you get all this money from?” He was lying down on the floor laughing.
I remember riding around the neighborhood with his mom to look for him when he was out past his curfew. His mom was single at the time, so he had chores and responsibilities. He was very capable of paying the bills — the gas bills and the light bills — and cleaning up the house.
He had a stutter, because he had polio when he was younger and it left him with a speech impediment. He did OK in school, but he wasn’t a lover of school. He did enough to get by, because his mom was on him. He had a golden retriever named Mike, and he was very fond of the dog.