By Mikva Alumnus, Miguel Blancarte, Jr.
Summer of 2005 is a time that I will not forget. As a newly-minted 18-year-old, I had just graduated from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood; I was preparing to leave for Brown University to study; and I held two internships – one at an immigration law firm in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, and the second at Illinois State Representative Cynthia Soto’s office as part my Mikva Challenge Summer Government and Leadership Internship and Institute (now known as Mikva’s Summer Fellows Program). The most memorable part of that summer, however, was the discussion I had with 34 of my Institute group peers about the death of Emmett Till.
At the beginning of the Institute, our facilitator Mia Henry, asked, “who here knows who Emmett Till was?” I remember looking around and seeing only a few hands go up; and those who did shared that they had heard of Emmett Till through family or friends. My hand certainly did not go up because up until then, my education had not afforded me the opportunity of learning about a story in history that should not be forgotten, and one that ought to be taught at schools. Throughout Mikva’s Institute, we gathered and learned about Till, the facts surrounding the case, the catalyst that Till’s murder was in sparking the civil rights movement efforts, and the importance about this time in America’s history.
To culminate the internship and Institute, 20 of the interns were able to partake in a 50th Year Emmett Till Commemorative Trip to Mississippi and Alabama. We boarded flights on Friday, August 26, 2005 and safely returned to Chicago on Monday, August 29, 2005. (Safely because that weekend was when Hurricane Katrina struck throughout Southern States, including Cleveland, Mississippi where we were staying).
The trip put everything we had learned into perspective. It allowed us to visualize important history by transporting us to the various sites surrounding his murder and case. We visited Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, MS, where Till allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant. We stopped by Glendora, MS, where on August 28, 1955, Till was brutally murdered. We sat inside the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, MS, where the case against the murders of Till, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, was heard, and where they were acquitted. We travelled to the gravesite of civil rights leader and activist Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville, MS via the Emmett Till Memorial Highway.
I was touched. Not only because I learned about the injustices but because I was able to hear from individuals who remembered Till and the case. This included some who were there when Till’s mother, Mammie Till Mobley, exhibited one of the bravest things a mother could do, hold an open-casket funeral. In doing so, Till Mobley hoped to bring attention to the atrocities of segregation, to the harm of race inequalities, and to wrongdoings of the law.
To address the aforementioned, we were also able to meet with various organizations and community leaders, who shared with us the injustices, racism, and segregation that still (then, in 2005) existed despite all the civil rights progress.
10 years later, and I am now 28-years-old. 10 years of new knowledge, and 10 years of massive expansion and growth has happened in our nation and in the world. I, we, now live in a world where technology has advanced communication, and it is said that communication is supposed to aid in resolving disagreements and that it is supposed to bridge divides between people. I’m not so sure.
While it is certain that technology advances communication; the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement being a great example, I’m not so sure that technology is aiding communications and bridging divides? Is the #BlackLivesMatter movement using history to advance and provide a foundation toward the efforts started 60 years ago? And if so, how can the movement continue to inform others about Emmett Till and Mammie Till Mobley?
This weekend marks the 10th year anniversary of the trip we, Mikva Challenge interns, embarked to Mississippi and Alabama; it marks the 60th year anniversary and commemoration of Emmett Till. Can we say that the story of Emmett Till and reaction to his violent murder is a precursor to #BlackLivesMatter? Making the connection is important: the unjust death of Till led to an unjust trial verdict, Mammie Till Mobley’s act of selflessness and courage led to the beginning of the civil rights movement. 60 years later, the efforts continue.
Miguel Blancarte, Jr., is a native and resident of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. He is a Board Member of the Mikva Challenge Emerging Leaders Board and a member of the Mikva Challenge Alumni Association. He is also a runner, a triathlete, and an athlete.
Follow Miguel at https://twitter.com/mblancartejr