Poetry Friday:Emmylou Harris – My Name Is Emmett Till

Poetry Friday is hosted by Jone MacCulloch at Check It Out

Two weeks ago, in the midst of our unit on slavery and the events leading to the Civil War, and as a closure of our poetry unit on songs and poems of social justice, we turned to this indelibly haunting song: My Name is Emmett Till.  As I have found in years past, none of my students had ever heard of Emmett Till, a boy not much older than they are, who lost his life to hatred and racism.   Few history text books seem to mention Emmett Till, and we can now add the names of Travon Martin and Tamir Rice (to name just two) to our country’s long legacy of racism and the heartbreaking violence it breeds.  But, teaching history demands that we seek the truth so that we can do better.  And so we learned about Emmett Till:

I did not let my students see the image of Emmett Till in his casket, but they were moved to tears by his story even so.  We sat for a while, in silence, processing our feelings…thinking about all we were learning about the history of slavery and the journey for Civil Rights, and about how each of us felt about this child’s sacrifice to the cause.

Then, we listened to EmmyLou Harris sing, as only she can sing:

and then spent some time reading through and responding to the lyrics:

My Name Is Emmett Till – Emmylou Harris

I was born a black boy
My name is Emmett Till
Walked this earth for 14 years
One night I was killed
For speaking to a woman
Whose skin was white as dough
That’s a sin in Mississippi
But how was I to know?

I come down from Chicago
To visit with my kin
There I was a cheeky kid
I guess I always been
But the harm they put upon me
Was too hard for what I done
For I was just a black boy
I never hurt no one

They took me from my uncle’s house
Mose Wright was his name
He’d be later standing without hesitation
Point the blame
At the ones who beat and cut me
And shot me with the gun
And threw me in the river
Like I was trash when they were done

I was sent back to my mother
At least what was left of me
She kept my casket open
For the whole wide world to see
The awful desecration
And the evidence of hate
You could not recognize me
The mutilation was so great

Became a cry for justice then
To be finally fulfilled
All because of me, a black boy
My name was Emmett Till

Oh, I had rather lived
Till I was too old to die young
Not even a soul I left behind
All that might have come
Summer clouds above my head
The grass beneath my feet
The warmth of a good woman
Her kisses soft and sweet

Perhaps to be a father
Of a black boy of my own
Watch him grow into a kinder world
Than I had known
Where no child would be murdered
For the color of his skin
And love would be the only thing
Inside the hearts of men

They say the horror of that night
Is haunting heaven still
Where I am one more black boy
My name is Emmett Till

Our classroom was quiet as my students read and wrote and wiped away tears.  Every year, I wonder if this is all too much for my sixth graders, and every year they respond in the same way: they want to know, they are moved, and they want to change the world and make it a better place.

After class, I found this on my desk:


evidence that there is hope, yet, for this:

“And love would be the only thing
Inside the hearts of men”


11 thoughts on “Poetry Friday:Emmylou Harris – My Name Is Emmett Till

  1. Thank you for sharing these powerful words with your students (and us) and helping them make sense of them, Tara. Our world can feel quite hopeless at times, so it’s cheering to know young people still have hope that “love would be the only thing/ Inside the hearts of men.”

  2. We must get to the point where it is not “hope” but reality. It may take more than hoping – nurturing thoughtfulness is a great way to lend heart and hands to this work. Here’s hoping this is a lesson your students hold onto for a long time. I believe they will.

  3. That is shockingly, awfully sad. I am so glad that a quiet student in your class was both touched and perceptive enough to leave such an affirming message on your desk. It has a certain strength about it.

  4. Oh, my. That hand drawn message of hope moved me to tears. I hope beyond hope that this generation will get us closer to getting it right.

    (Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath For Emmett Till was the first time I’d ever heard of this tragic moment in American History. GORGEOUS crown sonnet.)

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