Em­mett Till’s home, a launch­ing pad for civil rights move­ment, de­serves land­mark sta­tus

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - philkad­ner@gmail.com PHIL KADNER | @scoop2u

Ahum­ble two-flat at 64th and St. Lawrence played a cen­tral role in one of the most im­por­tant mo­ments in U.S. his­tory — and there’s an ef­fort to keep it from be­ing lost be­fore most peo­ple even re­al­ize it’s there.

Em­mett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan whose 1955 mur­der at the hands of Mis­sis­sippi racists sent shock­waves around the world, lived on the sec­ond floor of 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave., with his mother, Mamie, at the time of his death.

Last Thurs­day marked the 65th an­niver­sary of Till’s mur­der, and now Till’s fam­ily and ar­chi­tec­tural preser­va­tion­ists are re­new­ing a push to win city land­mark sta­tus for the build­ing, cit­ing its link to his­tory.

Their work could pay off this week. On Thurs­day, the city’s Com­mis­sion on Chicago Land­marks will de­cide whether to grant the build­ing pre­lim­i­nary land­mark sta­tus.

We urge the com­mis­sion to vote in fa­vor of the Till home. Land­mark sta­tus would fur­ther honor Em­mett and Mamie Till’s tragic but crit­i­cal role in 20th cen­tury Amer­ica. And given that the build­ing has fallen into dis­re­pair, land­mark­ing would help pro­tect the two-flat from de­mo­li­tion or ham-fisted ren­o­va­tion at­tempts.

This build­ing must be saved and put back into ac­tion. And to make that hap­pen, the city must throw its pro­tec­tive arms around it.

‘What they did to my baby’

Till was lynched on Aug. 28, 1955, while vis­it­ing rel­a­tives in Money, Mis­sis­sippi, fol­low­ing some kind of al­leged ver­bal in­ter­ac­tion with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in a store she owned. The de­tails of the ex­change, if it oc­curred at all, re­main sketchy to this day.

Bryant’s hus­band, Roy, and his brother J.W. Milam were ac­quit­ted of Till’s mur­der. But in a Look mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle pub­lished af­ter the trial, the men con­fessed they had kid­napped, tor­tured and beaten Till, then shot him be­fore dump­ing his body in the murky Tal­la­hatchie River. The men tied a 75-pound cot­ton gin fan around the boy’s neck to weigh him down.

Af­ter the body was found, Mamie Till made the ex­tra­or­di­nary and his­toric de­ci­sion to keep Till’s cof­fin open dur­ing his fu­neral.

About 50,000 peo­ple at­tended the cer­e­mony. The har­row­ing pho­tos of Till’s mu­ti­lated body — seen around the world — fur­ther ex­posed the bru­tal­ity of Amer­i­can racism and gal­va­nized the civil rights move­ment.

“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” Mamie Till said then.

‘Ab­so­lutely de­serv­ing’ of land­mark sta­tus

The Till res­i­dence is fall­ing apart, to put it bluntly. It’s been in Build­ing Court for at least the past 19 years, cited for ev­ery­thing from plumb­ing vi­o­la­tions to a crum­bling ex­te­rior.

There are no ex­te­rior mark­ers in­di­cat­ing the home’s his­tory.

A 2017 ef­fort to win land­mark sta­tus for the house failed. The non-profit group Preser­va­tion Chicago is work­ing with the Till fam­ily — which no longer owns or re­sides in the build­ing — on a new at­tempt to get the struc­ture land­marked.

As Sun-Times re­porter Maud­lyne Ihe­jirika re­ported last week, the or­ga­ni­za­tion filed a land­mark pro­posal for the build­ing last week with the city’s De­part­ment of Plan­ning.

That re­quest will be in front of the Com­mis­sion on Chicago Land­marks on Thurs­day. Ap­proval would give the build­ing full land­mark pro­tec­tion for a year while the com­mis­sion and city staff de­ter­mine if it should rec­om­mend that the City Coun­cil grant the honor per­ma­nently.

“It’s more per­ti­nent than ever that it be land­marked, as it’s now ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble,” says Preser­va­tion Chicago Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Ward Miller.

“This home rep­re­sents the legacy car­ried on by Till’s mother and fam­ily,” Miller added. “It should be a site of pil­grim­age.”

“That home in Wood­lawn is his­tory,” said Ol­lie Gor­don, 72, a Till cousin who lived in the build­ing with other fam­ily mem­bers in 1955. “That’s the home that Em­mett lived in. That was the home he left to board the train to go to Mis­sis­sippi. It’s his­tory in and of it­self, but it’s also part of the Civil Rights Move­ment, so that home is ab­so­lutely de­serv­ing of his­tor­i­cal sta­tus.”

As City Hall helps guide re­de­vel­op­ment to the Wood­lawn com­mu­nity, it has a duty to make sure the com­mu­nity’s his­tory is not erased.

Sav­ing the Till home is an im­por­tant stand the city must take, just as it did a decade ago when of­fi­cials land­marked a brick three-flat just four blocks away at 6140 S. Rhodes Ave. that was the child­hood home of play­wright Lor­raine Hans­berry.

His­tory has shown that a ragged va­cant build­ing on the South or West sides is in­her­ently at high risk. Build­ings there de­serve a far bet­ter fate.

Es­pe­cially this one.

More than 20 years ago, I re­ceived a call from Cook County Judge Will Gier­ach ask­ing me to meet him in his cham­bers. He had founded one of the most suc­cess­ful mu­nic­i­pal law firms in the south sub­urbs and went on to be­come a crim­i­nal court judge in Markham. News­pa­per ac­counts said he be­gan each day by read­ing his Bi­ble and writ­ings from a book called “101 Fa­mous Po­ems.”

He rou­tinely set bail at $100,000 in cases in­volv­ing just the il­le­gal pos­ses­sion of a hand­gun.

He was a tough, wise, very tra­di­tional man of jus­tice.

Any­way, as I sat in the judge’s cham­bers, he an­nounced he had some­thing im­por­tant he wanted to say as he neared re­tire­ment.

When Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower was leav­ing of­fice, Gier­ach re­minded me, he had is­sued a warn­ing to the peo­ple of the United States about a mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex.

Eisen­hower felt that gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, politi­cians, high-rank­ing mem­bers of the mil­i­tary and the de­fense in­dus­try were work­ing together to cre­ate a self-gen­er­at­ing multi-bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try that would con­tinue to grow and grow re­gard­less of need.

I re­called read­ing about the speech in his­tory class.

Well, Gier­ach said, the same thing was hap­pen­ing in the area of crim­i­nal jus­tice. He had seen it hap­pen­ing for more than 30 years.

Politi­cians would cam­paign for greater law en­force­ment, which would mean more po­lice on the streets, which would mean more ar­rests and a need for more prose­cu­tors and more court­rooms, and court­houses and jails and pris­ons and court re­porters and prison guards.

Bil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars were be­ing spent, we were lock­ing up more and more peo­ple, and it was all go­ing to con­tinue on and on be­cause it was a self-gen­er­at­ing ma­chine. The mon­ster had to be fed.

This was a long time ago, as I said. I wrote the col­umn. No­body seemed to take no­tice.

Ac­cord­ing to one study I saw re­cently, there are now 1,833 state pris­ons, 110 fed­eral pris­ons, 1,772 ju­ve­nile cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties, 3,134 lo­cal jails, 218 im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties and 80 In­dian county jails. Mil­lions of peo­ple are locked up.

I don’t know how many peo­ple are pro­cessed through court­houses in the U.S. each day, but I sug­gest that ev­ery­one visit the Cook County

Crim­i­nal Court­house at 26th and Cal­i­for­nia, or the sub­ur­ban branch courts near­est them around 9:30 a.m., just to wit­ness the flood of hu­man­ity flow­ing through those places each day. That’s af­ter the COVID-19 threat eases, of course.

I men­tion this now be­cause of the de­mon­stra­tions de­mand­ing an end to the sys­temic racism in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. No one who has spent much time in a court­room or vis­ited a jail or prison can deny that. Yet, there is dis­agree­ment about what should be done.

Some peo­ple think more Black peo­ple need to be locked up.

I heard the pres­i­dent’s chief of staff on Sun­day sug­gest the real prob­lem is with loot­ing and shoot­ings by the demon­stra­tors. This is not hap­pen­ing in Trump’s coun­try, he em­pha­sized. The prob­lems are oc­cur­ring in cities and states run by Democrats, and Don­ald Trump would be pleased to send in the mil­i­tary to straighten things out, even if those places are not part of his coun­try.

The Democrats, the pro­gres­sives and the Black Lives Mat­ter folks are liv­ing in that segment of the coun­try that was once con­sid­ered part of the United States, but has been ban­ished due to bad be­hav­ior.

Lock­ing peo­ple up has not worked. Putting peo­ple in prison has not worked. Hir­ing more po­lice and build­ing more court­houses and pris­ons has not worked.

So now peo­ple, teenagers, are car­ry­ing ri­fles, AR-15s, in the streets and po­lice stand by as peo­ple get shot. Po­lice are be­ing pelted with pro­jec­tiles, shot at and in­sulted.

Po­lice are some­times sit­ting on the necks of civil­ians un­til they die or shoot­ing them mul­ti­ple times. There is chaos.

Send in the troops! Let the mil­i­tary in­dus­trial com­plex fi­nally meet up with the crim­i­nal jus­tice com­plex. It seem in­evitable. Wel­come to Trump’s coun­try.


The for­mer home of Em­mett and Mamie Till at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave. in West Wood­lawn.


Cook County Jail

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