Forward Thinking

Noah Pozner's Emmett Till Moment

By Naomi Zeveloff

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Emmett Til

This week, the Forward’s web site was overwhelmed by traffic from the social news site Reddit, which featured my piece about the Newtown school rampage, “Wrestling With the Details of Noah Pozner’s Killing.” In the post, I outlined and explained the Forward’s decision to publish Noah’s mother’s description of her son’s body during our December 23 interview.

“[Noah’s] jaw was blown away,” Veronique Pozner told me. “I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered. They were brutalized.”

Why, a month after the killings, does the story of a Newtown mother’s insistence on sharing the brutality of her son’s death continue to resonate so strongly? The answer might be found in the Reddit thread, which attracted thousands of comments. Several users compared Veronique Pozner to Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till.

Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy whose 1955 murder helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Originally from Chicago, Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi where he was accused of flirting with a white female shopkeeper.

A few nights later, the woman’s husband and a relative kidnapped Till. They beat him, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head and dropped him in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s body was discovered three days later.

Noah Pozner

The murder quickly became a national story, in part because of the physical brutality of the attack and the gruesome damage that the attackers inflicted on Till.

Many mothers might have shied away from that brutality. Some might have sought to hide the extent of the damage inflicted on their child. Not Mamie Till Mobley. She insisted on keeping Emmett Till’s casket open for tens of thousands of mourners to view at his Chicago funeral.

“There was just no way I could describe what was in that box,” she said at the time. “No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”

The world did see. Photos of Till’s bloated, unrecognizable face were published in The Chicago Defender and Jet magazine.

In her public mourning, Mobley, who died in 2003, painted a raw picture of the twisted impact of American racism, and forever changed the course of our shared history in the process. Three months later, the Montgomery bus boycotts began. Within a little more than a decade, America was forever changed for the better.

After the Connecticut massacre, CNN contributor Roland Martin wondered when Newtown would have its Emmett Till moment. When would the parents release photos of their six-year-olds?

“Maybe if all Americans had to bear witness to such a photo,” Martin said, “we would stop ignoring the violence equivalent to the Newtown massacres that is happening in Chicago, New Orleans and other cities across this country.”

Now, across the internet, readers are also suggesting that Veronique Pozner’s unvarnished description of her son’s murder may play a role in the public discourse that is similar to that of Mamie Till Mobley.

“This really reminds me of what Emmett Till’s mother did,” wrote one Reddit user. “I think people often separate themselves from things they don’t want to realize, but it’s important in gaining support for preventative action.”

In a blog post for the American Counseling Association, Patricia Myers wrote, “In reading of Veronique’s strength I was reminded of Mamie Mobley, another mother who buried her son… The world reeled at the picture of young Emmett Till and the resulting outrage provided a spark to the Civil Rights movement. We need that spark now at the death of Noah, Jack, Rachel, Emilie and 22 others (numbers for just this killing and not for any of the 11 others that have occurred in the last 2 years or the month since). We must make this, and every other death by guns, mean something or we truly are, and will remain, severely impoverished as a nation.”

Recently, the Pozners sent a set of suggestions for stopping gun violence to the White House. Among the grieving family’s proposals were grants for school security and a requirement that anyone with knowledge of an “imminent threat of serious physical harm or death” must notify the police within 24 hours.

This week, President Obama presented a dramatic new set of gun control proposals. As of this writing, it was still unclear how much, if any, of the package might become law, or what impact it may have on the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S.

Perhaps the impetus of the Newtown tragedy will lead to change in the way our country deals with guns and violence. On the other hand, maybe the rampage will more or less recede into our collective memory, like the killing sprees at Columbine, Virginia Tech and elsewhere before it.

History tells us that Mamie Till Mobley’s bravery changed America irrevocably for the better.

Will Veronique Pozner’s bravery come close to being Newtown’s Emmett Till moment? Only time will tell.


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