NEW YORK – When Deacon Arthur Miller reflects on the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 he’s convinced that at least one percent of the Money, Mississippi, community knew that it was wrong, but that none of those one percent had the courage to speak out.
With that in mind, Miller said a new statue of Till in a Mississippi community not far from where the Black teenager was kidnapped and killed is a powerful reminder of the community’s complicity in what happened, and a call for Catholics to live out their faith.
“Maybe that statue is a calling to people to say it’s about time we stood up for what is right, because this isn’t about being Black, this is about social justice and our Catholic faith and what Christ taught us,” Miller, who was Till’s neighbor growing up in Chicago, told Crux, adding that he hopes the statue can be a “bastion of hope that we will never allow that kind of thing to happen again.”
“Hope that we can overcome even the worst of things and recognize that every human being is a child of God and the worst thing that you can do is destroy someone’s initiative, their curiosity, their hope.”
While visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 Till went to a local store with his cousins and supposedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, kidnapped and murdered the 14-year-old Black teenager, dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.
The lynching became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Especially after Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, held an open-casket funeral in Chicago so the world could see what happened. Miller credits Till-Mobley for keeping hope alive.
“[Till] wasn’t Catholic, but back in those days most people in the Black community were very faithful because the only thing we had was hope, and the worst thing you can do to any community, any human being, is destroy their hope,” he said. “You can suffer at many things but you can only do it with hope.”
“What they did to Emmett Till was to try to extinguish hope, but his mother wouldn’t let it happen – hope that one day this nation will be what it was supposed to be.”
The new statue, located in Greenwood, Mississippi, is about 10 miles from what’s left of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, the store Till visited on August 24, 1955. The 9-foot tall bronze statue depicts a living Till in slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie with one hand on the brim of a hat.
Today, Leflore County, where Greenwood is located, is 70 percent Black.
Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville, who leads the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, told Crux that the statue is a reminder that there is a “precious” cost to racism, and that cost is life.
“I hope that those who look upon that statue will certainly remember Emmett Till,” Fabre said. “I hope that they’ll utter a prayer for him and all those who lost their lives due to racism, but I also hope that it inspires people to do what we can to continue to fight to overcome the evil and sin of racism.”
When Crux spoke with Miller, 77, he was in Nevada, visiting his older brother, who was good friends and classmates with Till. He described the inherent kindness Till had even at such a young age.
Miller credits his own mother for his strong Catholic faith. And his experience growing up in a segregated Chicago – combined with his understanding of Catholic values – for his commitment to fighting for racial justice. He was arrested for the first time in 1963 during a march against segregated schools in Chicago, and the last time in 2015 participating in a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
He formerly led the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office for Black Catholic ministries, and wrote a book in 2005 titled, “The Journey to Chatham: Why Emmett Till’s Murder Changed America, a Personal Story.” He has also visited what’s left of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market.
Miller said he’s seen estimates that only five percent of Americans participated in the Civil Rights Movement in a meaningful way from 1955-1964, noting the impact that five percent had, and how today’s church can hopefully have a similar impact.
“My hope is that our church, all of us, become that five percent because just five percent can change stuff, just as the [one percent] in Money, Mississippi, could have said something, and it would’ve been much bigger,” Miller said, adding that as a nation “thank God we’re not where we were, but praise the Lord we ain’t where we’re supposed to be,” either.
For his part, at 77 Miller can’t quite lead marches like he used to, but he said he’ll never quit fighting.
“I will tell you this, man, I ain’t ever giving up,” Miller said. “You’re going to have to bury me still with my dead crinkled fingers calling to help my people, and when I say my people I mean all people.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg