Southeast Missouri State University student publication

Event honors Emmett Till’s legacy at SEMO

Monday, April 17, 2023
Speaker Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till’s best friend and cousin, listens to his wife, Marvel Parker, speak during the event.
Photo by Koki Lynn

SEMO recently hosted the “Emmett Till Project,” a series that featured speaker Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till’s best friend and cousin. On Aug. 28, 1955, two white men brutally beat and lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African American, for allegedly flirting with a white woman. This claim that was later recanted, according to an article by the History Channel. Till’s story and the story of the struggle for racial justice in America is kept alive by his family and many others.

The project included two events: a presentation for students was held in Dempster Hall from 1 to 3 p.m. April 12, and a presentation for the community was held from 5 to 7 p.m. April 13. Parker said the goal of speaking about Till is to discuss how far America has come in fighting racism and how much there still is to be done.

“You just can’t give up,” Parker said. “It takes a lot of endurance, a lot of patience and a lot of tenacity.”

Parker said the protests of the murder of George Floyd carried the same spirit of the unrest that followed Till’s murder.

“I saw something I never saw before, and that was diversity,” Parker said. “People are coming together, both races, to say this is wrong, and that’s what it’s going to take to make a change.”

The project is integrated into many course curriculums at SEMO, with 16 total classes participating in the project. Students in these classes were required to attend one of the speaker sessions and complete a project based on what they learned.

Professor of criminal justice, social work and sociology Dana Branson’s students created videos about Emmett Till and how his story connects to a current diversity or social work-related issue. The students shared their videos with local high schools to spread Till’s story and showcase the work of the Sociology Department.

“We’re always trying to find innovative ways to bring the curriculum to life,” Branson said.

Social work and sociology instructor Shay Cecil also helped shape the curriculum around the event. Cecil’s grandmother’s cousin is married to Parker, and she says Emmett Till’s story has been told in her family for a long time.

“I had my students watch the ‘The murder of Emmett Till’ documentary, and they had to react to that and compare it to how Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, used media to start a movement,” Cecil said. “I wanted my students to see how we can move forth with the pursuit of justice in the use of media.”

Cecil said the Social Culture and Diversity class she teaches has similar themes to the ones her students are learning about through Till’s story, and she is using this event as an opportunity to ask her students important questions.

“How do we look at the injustice in the world? How does it affect our lives? How am I affected? And how can I move forth with being a good advocate for people who don’t have voices?” Cecil said.

Senior social work major Shelby Clark attended the April 13 event to support her classmate, Zarria Taylor, who hosted the question-and-answer session with keynote speaker Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. She said she wasn’t taught about Emmett Till in school, so hearing his story from the perspective of someone who knew him helped her see Till’s story in a new light.

Senior psychology major Cameron Townsend said he found Parker’s discussion of how societal change starting at home inspiring and important.

“It’s important to highlight that people have many different experiences and backgrounds, and it’s important to make yourself aware of all those backgrounds, make yourself aware of different cultures and what they go through on a regular basis,” Townsend said.