The girl who knew Emmett Till


June 26, 2020. It’s been 65 years since that summer of 1955, and Pearl Lofton, 76, is talking to me from her home in Birmingham , Alabama, where she has been quarantined since March of this year. She tells me that she has lost two siblings to the coronavirus: Ruby, 69, and Fred, 79.

And then the conversation moves back to the summer of 1955, so that I can once again be reminded of how she knew Emmett Till. Emmett and Pearl’s brother Fred were good friends in Argo, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. They “shot hoops in the park, went for hamburgers at local hangouts, just paled around as fourteen-year-old boys do.”

Lofton says, “Emmett would come to the house, knock on the door, and say, ‘Where’s Fred?’ He wasn’t one for talking, at least not to me as I was a kid, 11 years old. They’d stand around in the yard, goofing off, punching each other, kidding around, and I’d peek at them from the floral curtains in the living room window because I thought Emmett was cute.

“When Emmett knew he was going south to visit some relatives in Mississippi, he invited Fred to go along.

“And the arguments began in our house for what seemed like days. I remember Mother saying, ’It’s too dangerous. If you go there, you won’t come back. You got to act a certain way, and you’ll go down there and get in trouble.’”

When the family learned that Emmett had been murdered, Lofton says, “We were crushed, heartbroken, both Fred and me.”

The back story. Emmett Till, age 14, 5-feet, 4-inches tall, was born and raised outside of Chicago and was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, when Carolyn Bryant, 21, encountered him on Aug. 28, 1955, in the grocery store where she was working. Several days later, Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and J.T. Milam went to Pastor Wright’s home where Emmett was staying, told him to get in the bed of the truck they were driving, drove for some time, then pistol whipped Emmett, mutilated him, shot him in the head, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. The men were acquitted by a petit jury.

In a January 1956 Look magazine article by William Bradford Huie, they admitted they killed him. The Look article indicates that when Carolyn Bryant was handing Emmett his change, “he squeezed her hand and said, ‘How about a date, baby?’” and “You needn’t be afraid ‘o me, Baby. I been with white girls before.” He also wolf whistled at her.

In 2008, Carolyn recanted her original account of the incident by saying, “That part’s not true,” referring to the charges she had made that Emmett used obscenities and grabbed her by the waist.

Pastor Wright is alleged to have said, “I thought they might say something to him, but I didn’t think they’d kill a boy.”

Now retired from a major telecommunications company, Lofton recalls some experiences during her work life.

· After graduating from high school, Lofton, at age 19, was hired by Motorola, and was the only black with 350 white females. To protect her, the company hired armed guards.

· While she was the only black employee working in a warehouse in a major trucking company, a coworker forged her name on packing slips for orders that had been improperly filled.

· At a telecommunications company, a manager reached across a table in the lunchroom and grabbed her breasts as other employees looked on.

· At that same locale, a young employee pinned her against a wall and grabbed her breast.

· When she was taking diet pills, a CEO announced at a meeting, “If you want amphetamines, just ask Pearl.”

· Knowing she was diabetic, an employee gave her a sugared drink that required she have her stomach pumped and spend the night in a hospital.

· When she told a supervisor she had to miss work because of needing a procedure for cervical cancer, the supervisor clapped her hands and jumped up and down with glee.

· While she and her husband were delivering telephone books in a white neighborhood, someone called the police and said they were rattling doorknobs with an intent to break into houses. Two cops arrived, and one pulled a gun and threatened to kill her husband.

With incidents such as these, Lofton always stood up, spoke put, and took the necessary actions to protect/defend herself.

As she reflects on today’s troubled environment and police violence, she says the following:

“This has been building, and the explosion has finally happened. It’s always been taking place to black men, and now they’re killing black women and children.”

Lofton continues, “Most of this acceleration in violence can be traced back to Trump. He didn’t start it. It had been toned down. Once Trump got in, they had a license to kill, to come out of the shadows. Trump has incited, hyped up these people, and they’re on a rampage.”

She concludes, “Trump will not be reelected. Enough people have awakened that I can’t see that happening.”

Note: In the July 6-July 13, 2020 issue of Time, in a section entitled “The lessons of America’s worst moments” Lonnie G Bunch III indicates in one of the five featured moments, “Periodically an event so offends our conscience that people have no choice but to take action. The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 was such a moment.”

By Vivian Blevins

Contributing columnist

Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., a graduate of The Ohio State University, served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and to work with veterans. You may reach her at 937-778-3815 or [email protected].

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