Speaker uses Till story to inspire teens
CHAMPAIGN – The young people of 50 years ago were integrating the public schools in Little Rock, Ark., and New Orleans. College students risked their lives to register black voters in the South.
They were using their lives to push forward the cause of equal rights for blacks.
In light of that, young people at Central High School were asked to think about their purpose during a program Thursday by the school's African-American Club to kick off Black History Month.
Chris Benson, a University of Illinois professor of journalism and African-American Studies, spoke about Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who was brutally murdered in 1955 while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Benson worked with Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to write a 2003 book about the murder, called "Death of Innocence."
The 14-year-old Till was killed after he whistled at a white woman in a store. He was abducted, severely beaten and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with an iron fan around his neck.
"That story would have ended right there, like so many lynchings in the South did, with only the local community knowing what happened, except for the extraordinary courage of his mother, who brought his body home, opened his casket and let thousands of people file by," Benson said.
Outrage at the murder helped fuel the civil rights movement.
Benson described Till as a smart, funny, popular kid and a natural leader. He said Till was someone with extraordinary gifts who was unable to fulfill his purpose in life because of his murder.
"There is a real lesson of what racism in this country has cost us," Benson said.
He encouraged the students to make wise choices and start now in finding their purpose in life.
"There are still many challenges we have to meet, 50 years after the death of Emmett Till," Benson said.
Adaire Thomas, a junior at Central, was familiar with Emmett Till's story.
"My mother sat me down and told me about it when I was little," he said. "It kind of opened my eyes to different things."
Thomas wants to study music, but he wasn't really thinking about his life's purpose before Benson's appearance.
Now, he said, "I'm about to get on my journey."
"This had you thinking deeply about what should you do with your life," said senior Cimino Denton. "I feel stronger, more pride for myself. It was really motivational."
Gabrielle Phillips, also a senior, is thinking about her future. She writes poetry and hopes her words can be a positive influence on others. She recited a poem Thursday that urged her fellow students to use the rights and freedoms they have.
"I hope they'll step up and realize ... it's time to make a change," she said.