By Leonor Ayala Polley

Mourners at Emmett Till’s funeral, Sept. 6, 1955. Photo: Dave Mann/Sun-Times. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Lauren and Michael Lee. Photo in the public domain. Access via Wikimedia Commons.

What do assault weapons do to the bodies of children? Do we want to know? Media pundits ponder whether showing more gruesome images might finally change public policy on the right to bear arms. Cognizant of another time a child’s body became an icon, we turned to Jessie Jaynes-Diming, a Civil Rights tour guide and Emmett Till Memorial Commission member, for her thoughts on Uvalde, Texas. We asked her to contextualize the murder of 14-year-old Till — and his mother Mamie Till’s decision to display his mutilated corpse in an open-casket funeral — to glean some perspective. Edited excerpts: 

URL Media: Many people have encouraged the use of graphic images from Uvalde, Texas, with hopes that it will finally trigger change. What are your thoughts?

Jessie Jaynes-Diming: I sort of straddle the fence. And I’m straddling the fence because if Mamie had not wanted the world to see what happened to her child, Emmett’s death would have been one of the several deaths that was in and around this community that African Americans around that time were just dealing with. So, the image of him when he came back to her was very significant. And the reason I say that I straddle the fence is because these were babies, and I think it’s a little bit more heinous the fact that 19 babies lost their lives.

I think that Emmett’s death was ripping off a scab.  There have been several events that involve the loss of life of grammar school children. We’re talking about five, six, seven-year-old souls and that is a little bit harder to swallow and to see. I think that we should be better than this … so I think that we, as a people will be galvanized just like people then. Just like Rosa and just like Martin and just like Medgar, just like Mamie was galvanized by the heinous crime of losing Emmett, that we will be galvanized because we will not be complacent and it will galvanize the youth like with Emmett — and it will galvanize the elders to be supportive and to pass the torch. 

I think that’s why I am straddling the fence — I want people to see that this should not happen, and this should not be. And it is so tragic to think of a 6-year-old leaving home in the morning and not coming back home that evening. 

URL Media: How did those images of Emmett Till change America? And what public policy change can we point to now to credit the showing of his body and open casket funeral for?

JJD: Well, I grew up in Chicago. And so I had access to Mamie and the Chicago Public Defender and because of Mamie’s stance and allowing it to be, and demanding that it should be an open casket, it galvanized people. It is such a strong, passionate feeling when you stand strong for what you believe in and will not accept what was a normalcy at that particular time in the lives of African Americans in the South, and all around the world in a lot of ways. 

Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral helped assist others that were sitting in, that were boycotting and that were doing what they could to support African Americans to register to vote. And it’s still coming back to the power of the vote. And what I mean by that is that our legislators, our Republican legislators that support the NRA and the guns and allowing a newly 18-year-old individual to purchase a gun of that caliber and to purchase that many rounds of ammunition. What our problem is, is that we have individuals that control our laws that want to say it’s our right to bear arms. Yes, it’s our right to bear arms, but do we need 200 hundred bullets?  Do we need an AK-47?   

Let’s not deflect from the heinous crime of the individual taking these lives. Let’s talk about that he was newly 18 years old and was able to purchase this rifle and an obscene amount of ammunition.  And then he turned that assault rifle on his grandmother first and then went to a grammar school and shot through windows and doors and walls and just murdered of 21 people. 

Jessie Jaynes-Diming

URL Media: What public policy change can we point to now and credit the showing of his body and open casket funeral for?

JJD: Well, the fact that we no longer have colored and white water fountains and an increase in Black-owned businesses and that Derek Chauvin is in jail.  There have been some changes. Not enough but just like in 1955, when they had the trial, that was the first time that I know of that a white man was ever tried to be held accountable for the death of a Black person. 

URL Media: Why do you think Emmett Till continues to capture us the way that he does? And his story? In your opinion what is the connection here to Uvalde, and modern-day school violence?

JJD: Just on the basis that it’s an injustice, to take innocent lives for no other reason, or to have a society and the laws uphold the taking of the life of a person in this manner — that all lives matter, and that for so many years, Black and Brown lives have not really mattered. 

And I think that it keeps coming back to Emmett because that was the first internationally known story. And it’s a story that is still relatable.

URL Media: Do you think it is easier to have this conversation about showing the horrors of crimes like this when the bodies are Black and Brown — as an Uvalde or Buffalo?

JJD: Thank God it’s not. (Editor’s note: Jaynes-Diming begins to cry.) It will never be easy to go another day when someone has lost their lives because they went to the grocery store, because they went to school that morning, because they went across the street, because they looked into the eyes of a closed, sick-minded person or because ‘I wanted an explanation about why you pulled me over?’  Or because I was walking in your neighborhood … it will never be easy and it will never. …So many of the names, you know, are just bouncing around me right now. And to call their names, individuals that have lost their lives because they were walking through a neighborhood being Black or Brown. It will never be easy, and I don’t want it to be easy. I just want to see the day that it doesn’t happen, that it just doesn’t happen.

URL Media: Any other thoughts?

JJD: I am still seeing the trend of how my people seem to be criminalized in the media — that an African-American child that comes up missing and does not get the same notoriety that a white person gets when they go missing. I am tired of explaining that a life, no matter what color is on the outside, is still precious. We need to stop the warmongering, the prejudice that some are justifying with the fact that it is my right to bear arms. I’m really sick and tired of hearing that. And I will be glad when people understand how the laws are made and how our society is run. And that they will quit voting and putting into the position [people] to speak for that support the NRA, that support AK47s and 200 rounds of ammunition spit out of a gun at 25 bullets a minute. Let’s stop and examine closely — the devil in the details.

This story is published through the URL Media Network, of which Epicenter-NYC is a member.

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