"He had a life before death": remembering Emmett Till for the child he was

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Ollie Gordon was just 7 years old in August 1955, when the life she shared with three generations of her family, including her cousin Emmett Till, on the South Side of Chicago was turned upside down.

Emmett, 14, had traveled to visit relatives in the Mississippi Delta, where he was abducted by two white men. His body was found a few days later in a river, mutilated and shot in the head.

“It was the first death my parents and siblings had experienced,” Ms. Gordon said in an interview this week. “Then to know that he was taken away by white men – we would have nightmares that someone was going to come and take us. “

Ms Gordon, 73, reflected on the life of her cousin leading up to what would have been his 80th birthday on Sunday, as well as the echoes of his death in the events of 2020, with the murder of George Floyd also galvanizing a rights movement civic.

“I understand when someone is called ‘the new Emmett Till’,” she said. “They don’t know what else to compare him to. A lynching can always be a lynching without hanging.

The past 18 months have also been a time of deep personal pain for Ms. Gordon. Her daughter, Airickca Gordon-Taylor, who ran an organization dedicated to preserving Emmett and her mother’s legacy, died in March after living with kidney problems for decades.

I spoke with her this week, and our conversation below has been condensed and edited slightly.

Most people remember Emmett Till for his death, but you have known him in life. How do you remember your time together in Chicago?

We actually lived in the same apartment. My parents emigrated from Mississippi to Chicago in the early 1950s and I was born in 48. We lived in the family building.

I was with him when I was 3 to 7 years old. He was more of a brother than a cousin.

He was a joker; he liked to make people laugh. There was a time when he took two dollar bills, and between them he cut newspaper pages to the same size. With a dollar bill on top and a bottom, it looked like he had made a big wad of money. He showed it to his mother. She asked, “Where do you get all this money from? He was lying on the floor laughing.

I remember walking around the neighborhood with his mother looking for him when he was out after his curfew. His mother was single at the time, so he had chores and responsibilities. He was very capable of paying the bills – gas bills and electricity bills – and cleaning the house.

He had a stutter, because he had polio when he was younger and it left him with a speech impediment. He did well in school, but he didn’t like school. He did enough to get by, because his mother was on him. He had a golden retriever named Mike, and he was very fond of the dog.

Tell me more about how Emmett was.

He would go to the A&P and help customers take their groceries home to earn pocket money. His grandmother made sure he was very respectful of the elderly. He shoveled snow and raked leaves for the neighbors.

He was the only child and his mother adored him. He was spoiled, but he was loved and disciplined. They had rules and expectations of him as a young man.

I remember our last Christmas together, in December 1954. He had this big hat that you see him wearing in all his photos. He was leaning on the TV and me and my siblings were sitting on the couch.

How was life in 1955?

He wanted this bike – well, not like the ones you have today – but a bike with a motor. But his mother thought he was just going to kill himself. He also wanted to go visit Mississippi. He begged his mother so hard that she gave in and let him go.

She thought that by going to Mississippi it would be safer than getting on the bike. So she taught him how to behave and how to act with caution because Mississippi was different from what he was used to.

What do you remember the news of his assassination in August?

I remember how sick her mother got. She fell seriously ill around the time he was abducted. It’s a mother’s instinct, she didn’t know it at the time.

Of course, when the phone call came in, we had a pretty happy house; then there was a lot of screaming and crying. It was the first death that my parents and siblings had experienced. Then, to know that he was taken away by white men – we would have nightmares that someone was going to come and take us.

Sunday would have been his 80th birthday. Do you remember having celebrated one of his birthdays with him?

I don’t know, but I’m sure we had a cake or something.

And then my daughter and I would always go to the cemetery and drop balloons together. We wanted to remember his life, he had a life before death. Emmett and his mother are buried about a block from each other. My daughter is next to her mom.

All my condolences.

Airickca fought for justice for Emmett. She died at the onset of the virus in March 2020. My daughter worked with a lot of mothers who lost their children to hate crimes.

She founded the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation. At one point she had a altercation with Lil Wayne. That’s when the foundation was really discovered and parents started coming to see us. So my kid was seeking justice for Emmett, but along the way she helped motivate other parents.

How have you been over the past 16 months?

I didn’t do much last year because I lost my child, and she was my only child, and it was very painful. For me, I have lost so many people that the injury only gets worse. I had breast cancer. The past year and a half has not been easy for me as I have pre-existing conditions.

How did the murder of George Floyd and all that followed affect you?

It does something to my mind. Sometimes I don’t want to watch the news. Police killings are lynchings, and I can’t call them anything else.

Emmett, and now George Floyd begging for his mom.

Emmett’s mother cried every day. She was a teacher and she would sit in her classroom and cry. His students would notice. She cried from the day Emmett was murdered until the day she died.

I lost my child and I was with her. Emmett was not with his mother and he died in a horrible and abusive manner. I can’t say I have this kind of pain. I have pain that penetrates, but its pain is on a scale that I cannot imagine.

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Newsrust - US Top News: "He had a life before death": remembering Emmett Till for the child he was
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