The Chicago pastor vividly remembers the night 60 years ago when two white men came for his cousin Emmett Till.
“Fear just gripped me,” said the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. “You couldn’t call anyone but God for help, so that’s what I did. I prayed.”
Till was murdered Aug. 28, 1955, for reportedly whistling at a white woman at a store while visiting relatives in Mississippi. After he was beaten and shot, the corpse of the black 14-year-old boy from Chicago was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River; the alleged killers were later acquitted by an all-white jury.
The decision by Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to hold an open-casket funeral in Chicago gave tens of thousands of people a chance to view his mutilated body. Photos of it circulated in media across the nation, proving to be a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement and exposing Jim Crow segregation’s brutality.
The 60th anniversary of Till’s murder was memorialized Friday with a motorcade processional from his funeral site at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ at 4021 S. State St. to his burial site at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, hosted by Till’s relatives and the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation.
Bridgeport resident Ilona Gersh came to the church Friday morning. She was 6 years old when Till was murdered and said that her mother tried to take her to the funeral but they couldn’t get in; she recalled that the line of mourners snaked outside around the building.
“It was like a flashback today,” said Hillary Gardley, 65, of Englewood, who got a little choked up outside the church. “My mother and father had told me about it, and it’s been with me ever since. As years go by, you comprehend it better.”
Local politicians, including Congresswoman Robin Kelly, Congressman Bobby Rush and state Sen. Jacqueline Collins spoke at the cemetery, where organizers say roughly 150 people paid their respects. Family members and friends placed wreaths beside the simple flat headstone marking Till’s grave and the larger memorial commemorating his mother, with the inscription “Her pain united a nation.”
“One thing his mother said: ‘I hope he didn’t die in vain,’ ” Parker said. “This lets her know he didn’t die in vain.”
Among the mourners at Till’s gravesite was Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland — an African-American woman from Naperville who was arrested in Texas and found hanged in a jail cell a month ago. Reed-Veal declined to comment, saying the focus should be on Till.
The mother of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager fatally shot three years ago in Sanford, Fla., and the father of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot and killed last year in Ferguson, Mo., attended a memorial event Friday night, organizers said.
“I see many parallels with what happened to Emmett, you can connect the dots,” said Till’s cousin Airickca Gordon-Taylor, co-founder of the foundation. “Our family, we had dealt with injustice for 60 years. We never had justice for Emmett Till’s murder.”
The events will continue Saturday with a youth rally. The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton are scheduled to speak at a gospel service in Till’s memory Sunday at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.
“These kinds of things, you have to keep remembering,” Parker said. “If you don’t remember history, you’re going to repeat it.”