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‘Emmett Till is Anne Frank to Black America'

‘Child martyrs to national evils,’ Frank and Till’s legacies increasingly tied

Their deaths separated by 10 years, Anne Frank and Emmett Till are connected by historians, filmmakers and playwrights. On Saturday, Frank would have been 92

Clockwise from left: A still shot From the play 'Anne and Emmett' (courtesy); Emmett Till, and Anne Frank. (Public domain)
Clockwise from left: A still shot From the play 'Anne and Emmett' (courtesy); Emmett Till, and Anne Frank. (Public domain)

Anne Frank’s father shared her diary with the world to “make something” of his daughter’s legacy. Ten years later in the United States, Mamie Till demanded her son Emmett’s mutilated corpse be put on display for a similar reason.

In 1955, after committing the “crime” of whistling in the direction of a white woman, 14-year-old Till was abducted from his uncle’s home near Money, Mississippi. He underwent extensive torture, was shot, and dumped into a river. Three days later, his corpse was discovered, weighed down by a 75-pound cotton gin fan attached to him with barbed wire.

Like Otto Frank, Mamie Till was determined to ensure her son’s name would be remembered. When Emmett was returned to Chicago, she allowed a magazine to bring her son’s story — including a photo of his unrecognizable face — to an international audience.

“I want the world to see this, because there was no way I would tell the world what happened and not have them see this picture,” said Mamie Till in an interview.

In recent years, historians and activists have drawn connections between the legacies of Frank and Till. Beginning in 2009, a play called “Anne and Emmett” has been staged in dozens of communities, and a slew of documentaries and books were created about the most notorious lynching in America.

In the US south, lynching was a constant threat facing Blacks. During the decades between emancipation from slavery and Till’s lynching, at least 600 Black men, women, and children were murdered by lynching in Mississippi alone. Many of the murders were committed in public, with white children joining their parents to celebrate.

Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury. One year earlier, the US Supreme Court had ruled that southern states must desegregate. On the heels of the trial, the perpetrators gave a paid magazine interview in which they admitted to the lynching. With “double jeopardy” laws, however, they could not be tried again.

Emmett and Mamie Till (public domain)

Forty years after the lynching, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp started to gather new evidence about Till’s murder. The facts indicated that at least five additional people were involved. Based largely on Beauchamp’s investigation, the FBI reopened the case in 2004.

“Unless you know the story of Emmett Louis Till, you do not know the racial dynamics that led to the civil rights movement,” wrote Beauchamp for The Black Collegian.

After working on his documentary about Till for nine years, Beauchamp came to see similarities between Till’s legacy and that of Anne Frank’s. (Frank would have turned 92 on June 12.)

“Emmett Till is Anne Frank to Black America. His death serves as a reminder of injustice as well as hope and change,” said Beauchamp, who has spoken about his own encounter with racist brutality as a 17-year old visiting Louisiana.

Emmett Till (public domain)

During their respective childhoods, both Till and Frank suffered from serious illnesses. Till battled polio that left him with a stutter, while Frank was kept home from school for weeks at a time with unnamed sicknesses. Despite their physical limitations, both children grew into rambunctious adolescents known for loving a good prank.

Like Anne Frank, he was an innocent, destroyed by ‘adult’ hatreds and institutions

“Till is to America what Anne Frank is to Germany, a child martyr to a national evil,” wrote historian Elliot J. Gorn. “His torture and murder symbolize the regime that brutalized his people for decades. Like Anne Frank, he was an innocent, destroyed by ‘adult’ hatreds and institutions.”

In his 2018 book, “Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till,” Gorn wrote about the psychological need for people to connect with one victim’s face, name, and story.

Journalists take images of the renovated Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. The museum is built around the secret annex hidden in an Amsterdam canal-side house where teenage Jewish diarist Anne Frank hid from Nazi occupiers during World War II is expanding to better tell Anne’s tragic story to the growing number of visitors. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

“The idea that the death of one is a tragedy, the death of one million is a statistic,” said Gorn. “[Till’s] ruined face has become shorthand for American bigotry, the logical extreme of our racial history.”

‘A place called memory’

When Janet Langhart Cohen wrote the play “Anne and Emmett” in 2009, Till’s name was beginning to appear in headlines again. Keith Beauchamp’s research and the FBI’s reopening of the case contributed to increased interest, and then came the debut of Cohen’s play at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

A few hours before “Anne and Emmet” was set to premiere at the museum in Washington, DC, a terrorist murdered Stephen Tyrone Johns, a special police officer at the museum. Cohen witnessed the attack on Johns, a Black security guard, and the play was postponed.

Production of ‘Anne and Emmett’ (courtesy)

In “Anne and Emmet,” the teens meet in “a place called memory” shortly after Till’s murder. Frank says she “wants to stay here as long as possible,” because “you exist as long as they remember you.” Slowly, Till comes to appreciate “memory” as well, as he hears his name invoked across the generations.

“Emmett and I were both Black and grew up in the same region,” said Cohen, who declined to speak with The Times of Israel, in a previous interview about the play. “I also identified with Anne. I was 14 when I learned about her and I started keeping a diary when I learned of hers,” said Cohen, whose play is used as a teaching tool by New York City’s police department.

In the play, 100 days after Till’s lynching, Till hears Rosa Parks thinking about him as she steels herself to face racists on the bus. Till hears people “marching, calling my name,” as the civil rights movement grows during the 1960s.

“The things Anne wrote about were things I had written about in my diary,” said Cohen, the author of two memoirs. “She lived in an attic and was afraid of the Nazis finding her and her family. I lived in a ghetto and feared police patrolling even though I never did anything wrong,” said Cohen, whose play was most recently performed in Canton, Ohio.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Alabama, on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. (AP Photo)

“Everyone’s history is to be remembered and Black people are told to forget it when all other history is recounted,” said Cohen, who was terminated from an “Entertainment Tonight” gig for asking Arnold Schwarzenegger about his father’s Nazi background.

During the past few years, activists in Mississippi worked to memorialize Till by marking sites associated with his murder. Not unlike the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the courthouse where Till’s killers were acquitted was restored to its 1955 appearance for visitors.

The efforts of Beauchamp, Cohen, and others have introduced Emmett Till to a new generation of Americans. Cohen said she dedicated the play and her career to making sure “Never Again” applies to every group facing discrimination and persecution.

“I wrote this play for students,” said Cohen. “I learned of racism as early as seven years old. My parents had to tell me about it because my life depended on it, much like Emmett Till.”

From the play ‘Anne and Emmett’ (courtesy)

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