This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!
— Dr. Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963
On this day in 1955, while visiting family in Money, Mississippi, African-American teenager Emmett Till was brutally murdered after speaking “inappropriately” to a white woman. His death was one of the key events leading up the American Civil Rights Movement.
Emmett was buried on September 6 in Illinois, with his mother, Mamie Carthan, insisting on an open-coffin funeral, so that “all the world [could] see what they did to my son.” Roy Bryant and his half-brother, JW Milam were indicted in Mississippi by a grand jury for the killing, but when the all-white jury came back from deliberations on September 23 after just 67 minutes, the two defendants were acquitted.
One hundred days after Emmett’s death, a black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus and was arrested for violating Alabama’s bus segregation laws. The Women’s Democratic Council, under Jo Ann Robinson, called for a citywide bus boycott and asked a young, 26-year-old minister to help. His name was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Less than ten years later, on this same day in 1963, led by that same passionate young minister, an estimated one-quarter to one-half million people converged at the Lincoln Memorial for the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the largest single protest demonstration in US history, organized to support sweeping civil rights measures.
I remember that day, for I was ten years old and I watched it on television with my heart overflowing with joy, hope and affirmation. I was old enough to see for myself the love, the truth and the power of their cause, but young enough to still be oblivious to the hostile response of my privileged white family.
Yes, this is the very day when Dr. Martin Luther King spoke the words that still send shivers through my soul and bring tears to my eyes:
“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
“Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
“But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi – from every mountainside.
“Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring – when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”