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Tucson Opinion: Emmett Till and I were the same age
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Tucson Opinion: Emmett Till and I were the same age

The fight for civil rights and equity continues

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

Emmett Till and I were the same age. We were both born a few miles from each other and spent our early lives in Chicago. We played baseball. We went to White Sox games. We listened to music by Fats Domino and the Penguins on the radio.

Now I don’t want you to misunderstand. We didn’t know each other. Our paths never crossed. I was a privileged white kid whose parents moved to the rich northwest suburbs. Emmett stayed on the poorer south side of Chicago.

In 1955 we both graduated from 8th grade and were ready to attend high school in the fall. That summer we both went to visit our uncles. My uncle lived in northern Minnesota. His uncle lived in Mississippi.

I had a great time with my uncle and cousins. I did plenty of fishing. At the end of August my family and I drove back to Illinois.

Emmett Till returned to Illinois at the end of August, too. Only he was in a coffin, dead; brutally murdered with his face so totally disfigured that he was virtually unrecognizable.

It was big news, worthy of a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune. “They” said he insulted a white woman. For a black kid, at that time and place, apparently, the penalty for that was torture and death. It may not have been officially legal, but “Hey, that’s the South... can’t be uppity here... gotta know your place.” Some folks were eventually charged, but nobody was ever found guilty.

I started high school in September of 1955. Eventually I moved to Tucson with my parents. I graduated from high school, then college. I got married, had kids, and worked until I retired. I had/have a good life. I still root for the White Sox; they won the World Series in 2005 (Emmett would have liked that). I still listen to Fats Domino. And the Penguins. I still like to go fishing.

Emmett Till never got a chance to do all those things. He’s still in Chicago. In the ground.

That grade school graduation summer was 65 years ago.

I still think about Emmett. I always hoped that my generation would be different. We fought for civil rights and voting rights. Nobody gets lynched anymore, do they? Jim Crow laws are all gone. No more signs saying “whites only.” No longer does the N-word roll off people’s tongues naturally. And Barack Obama, an African American, was our president for 8 years. Now there’s real progress.

But wait.

I see a man’s knee on a neck crushing out a human being’s life in full view of a camera and bystanders.

No shame.

Casual, just like he’s thinking, “It’s only a black guy.” Then there’s another killing in Atlanta. I see a man shot in the back. Suddenly we’re reminded of many other similar killings in the last few years. Some of us can’t help but try to imagine what 400 years of terrible oppression is like.

But, really, aren’t things better now? That’s what I hear white people say when interviewed by a TV reporter.

I wonder what Emmett Till would say. I sure wish I could ask him. Maybe I will someday.

Ray Lindstrom is a member of The Arizona Broadcaster’s Association Hall of Fame. He is a lecturer/writer, now retired in Oro Valley.

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