Lawson, who is 91 and delivered his eulogy from a wheelchair, knows better than most how many times righteous passion has given way to indifference and inertia.
But in the multitudes that have poured into the streets around the world to protest the death of a handcuffed black man whose neck was pinned under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, Lawson said he has seen something different.
“Back in the days when I used to be part of marches, all the marchers were black. But now there are white people who know the story, and there are Hispanics who know the story, and there are Asians who know the story,” Lawson said. “All of the cultures, all the races throughout the world, all of the nations throughout the world, all the continents throughout the world, they know the name of this man.”
That, we have learned, is how change can begin. In August 1955, the name that awakened everyone else to the reality that African Americans lived every day was that of a 14-year-old from Chicago, Emmett Till.
While visiting cousins in the town of Money, Miss., Till was said to have whistled at a white woman. For that, he was kidnapped, beaten and shot. Then, he was tied to a 75-pound cotton gin fan and thrown into a river.
His body was found three days later, so mutilated that it could be identified only by the initials on a signet ring that he wore on his finger. His mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, insisted that his casket remain open at his funeral, so that the world could see what had been done to her child.
By telegram, she pleaded with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to “personally see that justice is meted out to all persons involved in the beastly lynching of my son.” She received no reply.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, more fixated on possible communist connections within the civil rights movement than the justice of its cause, declined to open a federal case. “There has been no allegation made,” he said, “that the victim Emmett Till has been subjected to the deprivation of any right or privilege which is secured and protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”
The National Guard was called up in Mississippi — not to protect black citizens against any further acts of savagery, but because white people were jumpy about rumors they had heard of “a group of Chicago Negroes converging on the city to get revenge,” according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
Two men were accused of killing Till. They were acquitted by a jury that spent only an hour and five minutes in deliberations.
There are echoes today of the indifference and hostility that Till’s mother found among the leaders of this country and in the system that was supposed to protect its citizens.
On the morning of Floyd’s funeral, President Trump was tweeting a bizarre conspiracy theory claiming a 75-year-old peace activist shoved to the pavement by police during protests in Buffalo was likely an “ANTIFA provocateur” who “fell harder than he was pushed.” The blood that we saw pouring from Martin Gugino’s head, the president apparently wanted us to believe, was all part of “a set up.”
What we can hope is that the power of the human heart is greater than the kind of cynicism it would take to believe such a scenario attempting to debase the protests’ legitimacy. And in that, the legacy of Emmett Till provides some hope.
A hundred days after his murder, a woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala. She later said that it was Till who inspired her. Another who was deeply moved was 26-year-old Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who, eight years later, invoked “the crying voice of a little Emmett C. Till, screaming from the rushing waters in Mississippi.”
As former vice president Joe Biden put it so beautifully in a video message during Floyd’s service, his family — and all of us — now have “a burden that is now your purpose — to change the world for the better in the name of George Floyd.” A name that speaks to the shame of our history, but also points to the promise of our future.