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Just Relations: There are still too many Emmett Tills, pastor writes

This family photo, taken in Chicago, shows Mamie Till Mobley and her son Emmett Till, whose lynching in 1955 became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. | AP

As pastor of Bright Star Church in historic Bronzeville and a proud son of this community, I am reminded daily of the black church’s role in ministering outside its walls.

Pastor Christopher Harris Sr. | Provided photo
Pastor Christopher Harris. | Provided photo

I need to go no further than Bright Star’s location — the landmark Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ — for an example of the church’s community leadership. You see, it was here — at 4021 S. State St. — that nearly 63 years ago the funeral for 14-year-old Emmett Till helped spark the civil rights movement.

As so many of us know, while visiting family in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, Till was pulled from his bed and lynched, for supposedly flirting with a white woman, who decades later recanted her testimony.

The two men accused of killing the Chicago teenager — the woman’s husband and her brother-in-law — were speedily tried and acquitted but were brazen enough to confess their crime five months later in a national magazine.

But it was local black media and Roberts Temple that lit the match sparking outrage over the boy’s murder, galvanizing support for the civil rights movement.


The Bronzeville-based Chicago Daily Defender covered the murder extensively, and Jet magazine published photos of the severely mutilated Till in his casket at Roberts Temple.

Over a four-day period, tens of thousands of mourners viewed Till’s battered and bloated body.

It was Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who insisted on an open-casket funeral, saying she wanted the world to view what Mississippi police wanted to quickly bury: a boy who had been beaten, shot in the head and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Till was so unrecognizable that his water-logged body had to be identified by a ring given to him by his mother.

By the time his killers were let off the hook, the eyes of the nation were focused on racial injustice in the South three months before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

In 1955, it was Emmett Till. Today, it’s Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and a host of other young black men unjustly killed.

A different decade, but still Till.

Just as ministers and their congregations united in cities across the nation to fight racial injustice then, they do so today. From Ferguson, Mo., to here at Bright Star and across Chicago, the faith community has stood up to protest violence with Black Lives Matter marches and to help their communities heal.

As I remind my congregants at every service, “We’re a church on a mission” — a mission that goes beyond worshiping God to serving as his ambassadors in the communities we live in.

One of the ways Bright Star Community Outreach carries out its mission is via The Urban Resilience Network, or TURN Center, inspired by a trip I took to Israel in 2012. In Tel Aviv, I visited a treatment center for victims of post-traumatic stress run by the Israeli nonprofit organization NATAL. Just as NATAL works to improve the resilience of Israelis traumatized by war, TURN aims to do the same for Chicagoans traumatized by violence.

TURN doesn’t stop at helping victims of violence and their loved ones heal. We recognize that the perpetrators of violence and their families need help, too. Our faith-based counselors, trained by NATAL, offer that judgment-free assistance — a refuge from the stigma too often associated with mental illness in the black community.

Dr. King cautioned, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I take that a step further and challenge people to “say nothing until you do something about racism, violence and trauma.”

It’s with this spirit of activism that Bright Star Community Outreach will examine what in our society is “Still … Till” each Tuesday during Black History Month.

Starting Tuesday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., we’ll explore the life of Till and circumstances in the community such as systemic racism that contributed to his murder. We’ll talk about trauma and violence, incarceration, the justice system and the need for racial reconciliation. Equally important, we’ll explore solutions and next steps in addressing these problems.

To RSVP/register and more information, click here.

Chris Harris Sr. is senior pastor of Bright Star Church.