Aug. 28, 1955: The day Emmett Till launched a movement

The lynching death of a 14-year-old black boy in Mississippi awakened the country to the horrors of racism


For many people, Aug. 28, 2017, marks the return to the work week. Nothing special. Just another Monday.

But for black America, and by cosmic happenstance, Aug. 28 is much more — even if they don’t know it.

On this date in 1955, a 14-year-old black boy was lynched in Mississippi, awakening the country to the horrors of racism.

In 1963, more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington to hear a young preacher talk about freedom, jobs and a dream.

In 2005, hundreds of thousands of people fled the Gulf Coast as a killer hurricane was about to make landfall.

In 2008, a black man stood on a stage in Denver and accepted his party’s nomination for president.

And in 2017, the state will unveil a statue of an African-American hero on the grounds of the state Capitol.

“The 28th of August shows two sides of America,” said former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. “There are examples of when we were at our best and lots of people were engaged. And examples of us at our worst as a country.”

Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay put the pieces together with her short film “August 28: A Day in the Life of a People,” which debuted in 2016 at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

“In my eyes, August 28 tells so much about black history through the lens of one date,” DuVernay said at the time.

Aug. 28, 1955: Money, Miss. 

Gary Williams came into this world with as little hope as a black child could expect in 1955. One of seven children born to a General Motors inspector and a housewife in west Baltimore, Williams was at least lucky enough to have both parents in the house. Success would be getting a job out of high school and maybe going to college or carving a career in the military. Anything to get out of Baltimore.

“When my dad talked to us, he was a realist,” said Williams, a retired Amtrak conductor, who moved to Atlanta 13 years ago. “James Edward Williams told it like it was. He never told us that we could be president of the United States one day. Because that wasn’t realistic for a black boy in 1955.”

It was tough for all black boys in 1955.

Hours before Williams’ birth, in the early morning hours, two white men and a woman arrived at the home of Mose Wright in Money, Miss.

They wanted Wright’s 14-year-old nephew Emmett Till, who had just arrived from Chicago seven days earlier. Emmett, they say, had flirted with and whistled at a white woman.

They made Emmett dress and herded him into the back of a truck. He was never seen alive again, and his mutilated body washed up in the Tallahatchie River three days later.

Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket at her son’s funeral. She wanted the world to see what had been done to her son.

Jet Magazine and the black press shared images of the Emmett’s battered, bloated and unrecognizable body.

Three months later when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, she said: “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”

Shirley Franklin was 10, growing up in Philadelphia, when Emmett Till was murdered. She remembers sitting around the dinner table with her mother and grandmother, talking about the murder. Talking about Mamie Till’s decision. Talking about what it all meant.

“His death impacted me and radicalized me,” Franklin said. “I wondered, how could a sane person do that to a child not much older than me? Those discussions and his death were touchstones for me. All of a sudden, I realized that you just had to be black to be lynched.”

Jet Magazine also played a key role for Rita Dove. She celebrated her third birthday on the day Emmett was killed and has no direct recollection of it. But by the time she was 7, she was already an avid reader.

In documenting black history and culture, every issue of Jet would have an “On this Date” column. Dove, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1987 and became Poet Laureate of the United States in 1993 — the youngest person and first African-American poet to do so.

But as a 7-year-old, she wanted to know what happened on Aug. 28.

“I knew that one had to be very careful when you were in the presence of white people,” Dove said. “But I remember being totally shocked beyond measure at what I saw. I suddenly realized that there was a larger world out there.” 

Aug. 28, 1963: Washington

Franklin was an 18-year-old freshman at Howard University when 250,000 people marched on Washington.

Her mother and aunts wanted to go to the march as a family. Her mother Ruth took the bus from Philadelphia. Aunt Edna took the bus from New York City. Aunt Mildred was already living in D.C.

“It was important because my mother and aunts were following the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.,” Franklin said. “No one knew if it was going to be peaceful, because we had seen the horrific things on television. We didn’t know what would happen.”

Rita Dove was in Washington but had to watch the march on television. Because her birthday falls in late summer, the family generally took a trip to celebrate it. This time it was Washington.

Dove’s father, Ray, the first black research chemist in the rubber industry, wanted to march but was concerned about the safety of his children. The family arrived in D.C. to find what Dove calls the “most dramatic confluence of energy,” but 11-year-old Rita and her brother had to stay with relatives.

“I remember watching, and trying to find my dad,” Dove said. “There were all of these adults worrying about whether it was going to be dangerous, and I remember thinking, ‘This is my birthday,’ and wanting it to be a family event and realizing it was a very important moment.”

In Atlanta earlier this month, on a large mural of the march inside the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Franklin, who chairs the organization’s board points to a corner of the reflecting pool.

“We were standing right there,” Franklin said, smiling. “Marches were different then. You had to take what you were going to eat for the whole day. I was struck by how integrated the march was. People were singing and talking. Spiritually united.”

In fact, had Franklin not attended with her family, she is not sure she would have stayed for the whole event. She wanted to see John Lewis, because she knew his speech was going to be radical.

“But I am not sure I would have stayed to hear King otherwise,” Franklin said.

At the same time, Dove was spellbound as she watched the speech on a television in her cousin’s living room.

“I was already fascinated with words and poetry, so the repetition of King’s speech was mesmerizing,” said Dove, who has taught at the University of Virginia for the past 28 years.

After the march, her father returned. They cut her birthday cake and she blew out the candles.

“It was a special day,” Dove said. “But at 11, I didn’t quite understand how special it was.”

Aug. 28, 2005: New Orleans 

On Aug. 27, the day before New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered an evacuation of the city as Hurricane Katrina drew near, Christan Theresa Poret took her 1-year-old daughter, Meah, to a pool party.

“I kinda blew it off as just another warning,” Poret said. “We got hurricanes all the time. I figured that we would get some rain, the storm would turn and everything would be back to normal.”

Katrina was different — even if Poret didn’t know it. The lifelong New Orleans resident had just graduated from Xavier University and had the means to escape the city. Instead, she, Meah and her mother went uptown to stay with her then fiancé, Mark.

“We woke up and the sky was so clear,” Poret said. “Then we noticed that the water was coming to us.”

In no time, the water had breached the home, which was at least four feet off the ground.

With Meah on her back, they walked a half mile to the Super Dome through brown water, dodging snakes and wires.

The Super Dome was the last refuge for people who couldn’t get out of town. But by the time they got there, they weren’t accepting anybody else.

They walked back.

Someone made a raft out of the door of a looted grocery story. They placed Meah on the raft and made it to an apartment complex, where everybody had settled on the second floor.

“In the moment, I never thought about anything outside of survival,” Poret said.

After six hours, a helicopter came and rescued them from the roof of the complex and dropped them off on the highway.

Another 16 hours — with no food or bathrooms — they waited for a bus to take them to Houston. Then on Aug. 31, four days after the pool party, a relative in Atlanta pooled together enough frequent flier miles from her friends to fly eight family members to Atlanta.

More than 1,200 people, mostly black, died during Katrina and thousands more were displaced, including the Porets, who lost everything. Their homes. Cars. Photos. Clothes. But not hope.

“I don’t look at it as something sad,” Poret said. “Hurricane Katrina may have happened to show people that there are so many things that are bigger than us. It changed my life.”

Aug. 28, 2008: Denver 

Unlike her mother 45 years earlier, Shirley Franklin was not keen on taking her family to Denver for the Democratic National Convention. She was co-chairing the event and it was going to be a mess dealing with tons of people, security and booking hotels and transportation.

But the convention would also serve as the coronation of Barack Obama as the first black presidential candidate to represent a major political party.

“It was not my idea to bring the family, but my son insisted,” said Franklin, speaking of her late son Cabral, who also brought his 8-month old child. “That is part of being a family.”

Dove’s day was notably quieter. Because she traveled so much as a child, she is content on spending her birthday at home watching television with her husband.

“It is a day of contemplation. Of trying to be in a very internal, contemplative mood,” Dove said.

But on this birthday she was nearly giddy.

“I was at home trying not to split my face with my grin because I was so happy,” she said. “But I was also a little frightened. The whole chain of events that led up to Obama becoming president happened so rapidly. And I did not think that the country had grown up enough to see that this man was ready for this job.

As Obama gave his acceptance speech, Franklin’s mind drifted back to 1972 when she worked on the presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm. She thought back to 1984 and 1988 when Jesse Jackson made his quixotic runs for president.

She thought about her mother and the March on Washington, how she became the first black female mayor of a major Southern city, and how she climbed the ranks of the Democratic party hierarchy. And she truly believed that she was listening to the next president of the United States. Something she admits she could never have dreamed of during those painful days of sitting at the family dinner table talking about Emmett.

“I was so proud of the United States, the Democratic Party and the people who made it happen. And I was really proud of him,” Franklin said. “They had figured out how to break the code. He and his team figured out how a man of color could ascend the political ladder. I am still amazed by it. He was there by intention. I consider that one of his finest accomplishments.”

Gary Williams, the Atlanta railroad retiree who was born on the day of Emmett Till’s murder, watched Obama’s speech with his late wife. His thoughts were on his dad, who had just died.

“I wish my dad was alive to see it,” he told his wife. “And I told my mom, my sisters and brothers that I can now tell my son that he can be president of the United States if he wanted to be.

Aug. 28, 2017: Atlanta

Williams and his girlfriend will be in Las Vegas this week for his birthday. Thursday will make 11 years since Christan Theresa Poret arrived in Atlanta for good.

Since then, she and Mark, whom she married, have had three more children, all sons. Mark Poret is a postal worker, and Poret teaches African dance part time.

“Since we got here, we have gone through a lot of ups and downs,” Poret said. “I had a close-knit family structure in New Orleans and I miss my family and friends. I miss being with them and having the opportunity to see our kids growing up together. But life has been really good. Overall, we do have a good life.”

Monday will be another Aug. 28 of significance: a statue of Martin Luther King Jr., the state’s first Nobel Prize winner, will be unveiled on the Capitol grounds, essentially replacing the controversial statue of segregationist Thomas Watson.

Two weeks ago, Dove, in front of her television again, watched in horror as Heather Heyer was killed during a protest in Charlottesville. Heyer was a counterprotester staring down members of the alt-right who were protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

“I don’t assign any great sense of things aligning, but human beings being human beings, we will try to assign significance to things falling on the same date. So it is important,” said Dove, who is working on a new book. “What that does is, it allows us to make comparisons. You can see the best of mankind and the worst. The best of nature and worst. These are these bookends that are very useful to us.”

—Anastaciah Ondieki contributed to this article.



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