Marvin Childress Sr. had planned to see his grandson Javonte star in the stage play The Face of Emmett Till, last weekend at his son’s high school in Oak Park.
The all-student production was about the life of Till, who was killed by two white men while visiting relatives in the South in 1955. Till, who was from Chicago, was 14 years old when he was murdered. His death helped spark the Civil Rights Movement. Javonte Childress, a freshman at Oak Park and River Forest High School, played the title role.
His grandfather, though, had second thoughts about seeing the play and decided not to attend. He was friends with Till and thought the play would hit too close to home. They both grew up on the South Side and lived about three blocks from each other near 65th Street and Eberhart Avenue. They were in the same class at McCosh Elementary School. Childress was a year younger than Till.
“When I first found out that Javonte was going to play him, I thought it was good. I had every intention of going. As time progressed, I did think about it and realized it would be too emotional,” said Childress, who lives in Chicago and works as a physical education instructor.
The play, written by Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley and playwright David Barr, debuted at the Suburban-Chicago high school March 21 and ended on Tuesday. Javonte says he understands why his grandfather couldn’t attend. He knew they were friends before securing the part, which a classmate encouraged him to try out for. Javonte learned of his grandfather’s friendship when he was assigned a class project about Till while attending middle school in Oak Park. Javonte’s father, Marvin Childress Jr., an Oak Park elementary school teacher, told him about his grandfather’s friendship with Till.
“I learned more about him and heard little stories here and there,” Javonte said. “He seemed like just a regular kid.”
No one involved with the school’s production knew of his grandfather’s connection to Till until after Javonte won the part. Javonte happened to mention it during an interview about the play with the high school newspaper.
Till was the same age as Javonte, 14, when he died. He was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. He and his cousin, whose family he was staying with for the summer, were in a store when the incident happened. Word spread quickly in the small town of Money, in the Mississippi Delta. The story grew in the telling. The white woman, who was in her 20s, told her husband that Till grabbed her at the waist and made rude remarks. Four days later, Till was dead, killed by the woman’s husband and his brother. His body was found brutally beaten, his face unrecognizable. The two men were acquitted by an all-white jury in the trial, which took place in September 1955, less than a month after Till’s death.
Childress insists Till was never involved in crimes when they were young, but they, like a lot of kids, got into minor mischief.
“He was a happy-go-lucky kid. He wasn’t a bad kid and didn’t get into trouble,” he said. “He was not a criminally intent kid. I would not have run around with someone who got into serious trouble.”
Childress recalled that his mother also liked Till, who had a stuttering problem stemming from health problems he suffered as a toddler. But he liked to whistle, Childress said, and remembers one of his favorite songs was “Goodnight, Sweetheart.” Till also had a dog named Lady. Childress recalled him having a crush on a girl who lived next door.
He found out about Till’s death from his mother, who was reading about it in Jet Magazine.
“She said, ‘Isn’t this your friend?’ She showed it to me. It was either a picture of him in his casket or when his body was recovered.”
At the time of his funeral, Till’s mother insisted the casket remain open so the world could see what had happened to her son. Till’s face was bloated and disfigured. Mamie Till died in 2003 at age 81.
Childress admits it’s difficult to talk about what happened to his friend. But he’s always viewed what happened to Till as a motivator for the Civil Rights Movement. Historians agree. The stage at Oak Park and River Forest High School where the play was performed was set up to resemble the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. The memorial includes a large black, table-like stone structure with water flowing from the center and rippling over the sides. It has the names of 40 black people, including Till, who died during the civil rights struggle.
“I kind of think of him as having unwittingly put that stuff in motion,” said Childress, who called Emmett Till the black person he most admires.