SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts — “He wasn’t special. He was just a little boy.”
Deacon Arthur Miller, of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, shared this memory of Emmett Till, his boyhood neighbor and schoolmate, in a recent talk hosted by the Diocese of Springfield at the Bishop Marshall Center.
Emmett was a Black teenager from Chicago who was brutally murdered by two white men while he was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, in 1955.
Miller is the author of the 2005 book “The Journey to Chatham: Why Emmett Till’s Murder Changed America, a Personal Story.”
His address followed a Mass celebrated by Msgr. Christopher Connelly at St. Michael’s Cathedral, which is adjacent to the center. The deacon assisted the priest, who is the cathedral’s rector, and delivered the homily.
The deacon opened his Jan. 16 talk by describing his experiences growing up on the South Side of Chicago and nearby Chatham, Illinois, in the 1940s and ’50s.
Noting that his parents were college graduates, he said the family was subject to segregation when they moved from the South Side to the suburban neighborhood of Chatham.
He recalled that the first time he and his family members attended the Catholic Church nearest their home, an all-white parish, the priest announced publicly that he did not want the new family in his parish.
But Miller’s mother would have none of that.
“That man is not going to put me out of my church,” he recalled his mother saying. “From that day forward, my mother went to daily Mass and sat in the front pew,” he said, drawing laughter and applause from listeners. “I remember also that when they said the blessing, she would always pray for the conversion of that priest.”
Of his neighbor and schoolmate Emmett, Miller, said: “He was just a kid.”
“I want people to know him as this little boy,” he said. “He was an unwilling martyr.”
Miller described Emmett, who was a classmate of his older brother, Warren, as very smart and protective of Warren. He said Emmett was a neighborhood boy who, along with other boys, got into trouble for breaking car windows. They were punished by having to clean up the yard of the man whose windows were broken.
“And then Emmett was killed. And I didn’t understand it,” he said. “We couldn’t understand why a little boy was killed.”
Miller then referenced something he said in his homily earlier — about adding an “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shall not be a bystander.”
In the homily, he talked about racism and encouraged his listeners to seek justice. He assured the congregation they were “wonderfully and fearfully” made by God — drawing on a passage from Psalm 139: “I will praise you for I am wonderfully and fearfully made.”
He told them if they experience hatred because of their race, or any other reason, “it’s not you, it’s them.”
The hatred that killed his schoolmate Emmett, he noted, was supported by the state of Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, but he urged the congregation to focus their lives on Christ’s call to love.
“All that doesn’t call you to love is calling you to someplace else and you must get rid of it,” Miller said. Regarding racial injustice, he said, “This nation is called to transformation,” drawing applause and “Amens!” from the congregation.
Encouraging listeners to seek justice, he said if he added an “Eleventh Commandment” for Christians, it would be: “Thou shalt not be a bystander.”
So in his talk, the deacon illustrated his dedication to this “Eleventh Commandment” by way of a personal narrative about a girl in his seventh-grade class who was bullied throughout junior high and high school.
The girl, Victoria, also left notes every day for young Arthur, saying that she liked him. Although he never bullied her himself, he regrets that he never stood up for her.
Encouraging his audience to actively address poverty and injustice in their own neighborhoods, Miller cited the example of his 108-year-old Aunt Anita, who is still healthy and ambulatory. “She feeds the hungry. And she sits with the people she feeds — the homeless, the hungry.”
He said his aunt’s actions encourage him to persevere in his own activism.
“I’m going to live until the day I die,” he said. “You live until the day the Lord calls you home. You love until the day the Lord calls you home.”
“The truth is,” Miller said, concluding his talk, “we shall overcome.'”
Miller was the 2022 Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day speaker. He spoke to a larger-than-usual gathering after Mass for a coffee hour presented by the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver and members of the Springfield Diocese’s Black Catholic Apostolate.
In his homily, he cited Rev. King as “a great transformer” who called for transformation in the nation.
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Drake is editor and news director of the Catholic Communications ministry of the Diocese of Springfield, Mass.