Muhammad Ali & Emmett Till


Reading in today’s paper the biography of a writer named Barbara Goldsmith made me think about Emmett Till.  Goldsmith, who wrote a best-selling account of the Gloria Vanderbilt custody trial in 1934, remembered that as a child of wealthy parents she was scared of being kidnapped.  The year after her birth in New York City, the baby of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, was stolen out of his crib in a second story bedroom in the family home in New Jersey. The ensuing two month search,the discovery of the dead child, then the arrest, trial and execution of the abductor were all widely publicized.  Goldsmith is quoted as telling an interviewer that, “I used to go to bed a night and wait for the sound of the ladder plopping against my bedroom window. I’ve since found out that a lot of people who grew during the Depression had these same fears, because of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping.”

This reminded me that just a month ago, in New York Times coverage of his death, I learned that Muhammad Ali “traced his racial and political identity to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old from Chicago who was believed to have flirted with a white woman…” Born early in 1942, Ali was the same age as Emmett Till when he was dragged from his uncle’s home in rural Mississippi, tortured, murdered and his body thrown into a river.  Publicity surrounding the case, especially his mother’s decision to have an open coffin and to allow photographs, was one of the factors galvanizing the civil rights movement.  Just six months after Till was laid to rest Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed to lead a boycott of city buses.

I was particularly struck by Ali’s comment because I had personally heard BOTH Congressman John Lewis and the late Julian Bond say how much Till’s murder effected them.  Both men were born in early 1940 so they, like Muhammad Ali, were about the same age as Emmett Till when he was murdered.  They came from different worlds — Lewis was raised on an Alabama farm so remote he was 12 before he ever saw a white person; Bond was the son of a college president, growing up in Atlanta.  But both were young and black and felt “If it can happen to him, it could happen to me.”

I have been to the now boarded up store in the small town of Money, Mississippi where Emmett Till went with his cousins one evening in July, 1955.  I have seen the court house where his killers were tried and acquitted (though they later rather gleefully admitted their guilt).  It’s eerie and it’s awful.  A terrible memory for this summer afternoon.