Saturday, July 25, 2020, marked what would have been Emmett Till’s seventy-ninth birthday. Till, a black child whose spilled blood evidences the evil cast against the black collective, maintains his eternal youth in more ways than one. Had Till lived to see adulthood, he would be younger than many millennial grandparents betraying his brutal murder, which continues to echo in the minds and hearts of the black collective, as maintaining similar historical proximity. Considering Till alongside John Lewis evokes a similar reality.
Till, had he lived, would be younger than John Lewis, the last of the big six who passed away on July 17th. On Sunday, I watched as John Lewis’ body crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where fifty-five years ago, Alabama police beat Lewis, along with other civil rights demonstrators including Amelia Boynton who passed in 2015, on their march from Selma to Montgomery. The last living of the big six— James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young—John Lewis’ death marks the end of an era. But similar to what would have been Emmet Till’s 79th birthday, Lewis’ body crossing the bridge stained in black blood and still named after Alabama KKK leader and staunch Confederate Edmund Pettus, brings the simmer of black rage to a boil.
This image of Lewis’ body being carried over the bridge symbolically captures his journey over the mortal threshold, a painful image that illuminates a startling truth: that our leaders, our sacrificial lambs, our cultural contributors continue to leave an unchanged world. What I mean here is that change, be it physical freedom, the right to marry, or the right to vote has failed to alter the reality of what it means to be black in America. This is not to say that we as a collective have not made notable strides, it is to say that the same infrastructures that acknowledge black people in death engender their systemic assault in life. It is to say that the same infrastructure that deemed Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland legally free also deemed their murders legal. The same infrastructure that deemed John Lewis legal free legally beat him like an animal for seeking to actualize said freedom. The same infrastructure that legally deemed Emmet Till a little boy and not property, murdered him for being just that. Moreover, the cyclical disenfranchisement that continues to befall black people goes around and around like a merry go round orchestrated by white supremacists.
Nevertheless, though propagated as a poignant American moment, Lewis’ posthumous journey over the bridge that battered into him into history once again illuminates the sensationalized black body as a national fixation. This image illuminates systemic disenfranchisement as a mutilated component of America’s social ambiance. Specifically, the media upholds this cognitively dissonant moment as respect and honor; whereas this performative gesture illuminates that blacks remain in pursuit of these basic human decencies. Till and Lewis, sensationalized black bodies that attain visibility and valor to the larger American culture post-white supremacist attack, illuminate what it means to matter in a white world, simultaneously revealing what mattering is simply never enough.
Furthermore, in examining the lives lived and taken, we as a collective must employ the black blood that unites all blacks in a rich cultural genealogy—as an incentive to look within as we look ahead.