When I saw the sign for the Emmett Till Museum, I knew I had to take the next exit. As a Ph.D. student in American history studying the civil-rights movement, it felt almost like an obligation. My only hesitation was that my 7-year-old son was in the car too.
Was he ready to learn about one of the most notorious lynchings in the nation’s history? Could I bear to watch his eyes lose some of their glow?
The road that led from the highway to the one-street town of Glendora, Mississippi, was barely more than a trail. Only the concrete slabs remain of the home of one of Till’s lynchers, and just beyond it stands a gray building with corrugated metal walls. Inside is the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, or ETHIC, a locally run museum, but in 1955, the year Till was killed, the structure housed a cotton gin. It is likely the place where Milam and his conspirators retrieved the 75-pound cotton-gin fan that they tied around Till’s neck with barbed wire to weigh him down after they threw his corpse into a nearby river.
It was a lot to explain to my son. I didn’t show him any of the gruesome pictures that made Till’s murder internationally known. I simply told him that some men had killed a boy because they thought people with brown skin had to be controlled, violently if necessary.