ALLEGAN, Mich. (WOOD) — The impacts of Emmett Till’s death are still being felt nearly 67 years later. Born on July 25, 1941, Till would have been 81 on Monday, but his life was cut short when he was kidnapped, killed and thrown into a river for allegedly making improper advances on a white woman in Mississippi.
“It’s true most people probably don’t know of Emmett Till because, for 49 years and 10 months, the state of Mississippi did not spend $1 to memorialize a 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered. It wasn’t until they reopened the case in 2005 that started getting some publicity,” said James Herm, a former history teacher from Otsego.
Herm is part of several anti-racism and community advocate organizations in the Kalamazoo area. His interest in Till’s story was sparked when he read a published book in 2017 about what happened to the teen. Over the past several years, Herm has met numerous people who write, speak and research Till. In January 2020, the retired history teacher went on a solo trip and visited nine sites of an Emmett Till historical program.
After the murder of George Floyd, Herm took part in a silent protest in June 2020 where he said people were not only speaking the name of George Floyd, but those of other Black men and women killed throughout history, including Emmett Till. After the protest, Herm said some people asked who Emmett Till was and what happened to him.
“Here I was, a person that had taught history and so forth. I myself didn’t know a lot about Emmett Till. If I didn’t know, why would other people not know as well?” Herm questioned.
He has made it a mission to teach people in the community about the young boy. In November, Herm gave a presentation at the library in Otsego and has since gotten calls from libraries around the state to speak on Till’s life and legacy.
“I have a son. He was 14 at one time. I was 14 at one time, and I believe that people that got away with this type of murder… other people have to know,” Herm said. “Most scholars, most historians all agree Emmett’s trial and murder was the catalyst that began the civil rights movement.
Herm believes there are several reasons why many people don’t know the story of Till. First is that there was not a lot of literature about it until more recently. He also said it’s something many schools don’t teach.
“Most students in school aren’t taught Black history. They may mention slavery and the Civil War and so forth, but the true effect of Black history is really missing in many peoples’ education. As a result, most people don’t know much about the civil rights movement and why it took place.”
To better understand the things happening today, Herm said it’s important to know Emmett Till’s story, no matter how terrible the circumstances. Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam were accused of the murder but were acquitted by an all-White, all-male jury. No one else was ever indicted or prosecuted for involvement in the kidnapping or murder.
The Associated Press recently obtained an unpublished memoir in which Carolyn Bryant said she didn’t want Till murdered and was unaware of what would happen to the boy. Although her then-husband Bryant and Milam were acquitted, they later confessed in a magazine interview.
“The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, which is very active in Chicago, found the original arrest warrant in the basement of the Greenwood Courthouse. An arrest warrant never retires. It’s always active until it’s served, so members of the legacy foundation and many of the Emmett Till scholars still want that served to Carolyn Bryant, who lives in North Carolina, 87 years old, and so forth. So, the case is kind of still ongoing, and what’s going to happen from here on in, I don’t know.”
There, however, is one thing Herm does know for sure.
“We need to cherish these stories and expand on them. We need to expand on these principles that we will never allow something like this to continue.