‘Thou shalt not be a bystander’: Deacon Arthur Miller recalls schoolmate Emmitt Till, role in civil rights movement

  • Catholic Deacon Arthur Miller, childhood friend of Emmett Till, preaches to the congregation about Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine, at the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, Sunday, in Springfield. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

  • Deacon Arthur Miller from the Archdiocese of Hartford, discusses his participation in the civil rights movement and the legacy of Emmett Till, a childhood friend of his growing up in the South Side of Chicago, during a coffee hour fellowship Sunday at St. Michael’s in Springfield. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

For the Gazette
Published: 1/16/2022 9:10:57 PM
Modified: 1/16/2022 9:09:53 PM

SPRINGFIELD — “I have never been treated poorly because I’m a Black man,” said Deacon Arthur Miller to a few surprised gasps at St. Michael’s Cathedral on Sunday. “They don’t do it because I’m Black. They do it because they’re broken.”

The nationally known preacher and author from the South Side of Chicago and St. Mary’s Church in Simsbury, Connecticut, came to talk about transformation. “Dr. King calls on us to transform,” Miller said.

He also came to talk about a childhood friend, the unwitting catalyst for the civil rights movement, Emmett Till.

Several people heard the closed-door screams of agony in Money, Mississippi, when 14-year-old Till, visiting from Chicago, was tortured and lynched by two white men in 1955. Till’s murder for basically talking to a white woman in her store and allegedly whistling at her later was the spark that ignited change, particularly since the acquitted killers deemed it safe to admit their guilt right away, in Look Magazine in 1956, flaunting their double jeopardy protection and rubbing America’s nose in it.

Till’s slaying assaulted Miller and his family and friends from every direction possible. He can still hear his brother’s wails. Racism was not something overly pondered in 1955.

“Chicago was segregated,” Miller explained. “Our neighborhood was all Black. Everything we needed was in our community. We began to learn what it meant to be Black in America.”

“My brother sat next to (Emmett) in school. Pete was brilliant, skipped grades. (Warren “Pete” Miller served in the Obama administration as associate secretary of nuclear energy.) He was younger than all the other boys. Emmett protected my brother,” Miller recalled.

Miller’s most vivid memory of Emmett Till was raising hell, throwing rocks through windows, including the house where a well-known ballplayer from the Negro Leagues lived.

“But, there was a woman in the window; there’s always a woman in the window,” said Miller, to knowing laughs. “Keeping an eye on everything and everybody. If you don’t know who that woman was, it was you!”

The scamps were ID’d positively and had to clean up the famous ballplayer’s yard and also the mounds of poop left on the street out front by the horses of peddlers. Of Emmett Till, Miller said, “He wasn’t special — he was just a little boy.”

The people of the Chatham neighborhood in Chicago never had to think about people like the ones in Money.

“They killed him because that town embraced hatred, the state of Mississippi encouraged it and a nation tolerated it,” said Miller, who has been inside that very store. “The Money community said it was OK to kill that boy.”

Using the Bible story of Jesus changing the water to wine, Miller’s homily centered on transformation, letting go of past anger, old remorses.

“Tomorrow, the world will celebrate a great transformance,” Miller preached. “Dr. King came to transform every part of our nation, to empty itself of past transgressions.”

The white supremacist’s strategy of intentionally excluding others from opportunity can serve to instill inferiority in the excluded, something that Martin Luther King recognized.

“Dr. King came to change that residual self-hatred, and move that hatred to where it belongs,” said Miller. “I tell people ‘It is not you! The hatred belongs to them! I look in the mirror and I see a beautiful Black man, beautifully made by God.”

In his book “The Journey to Chatham,” Miller talks not only about his and his friends’ memories of growing up with Emmett Till but of the time his parents moved the family out of a third-floor apartment to a house in Chatham on the South Side.

“Green lawns, birds singing. My brothers and I slept in the dining room — now we had our own bedroom,” Miller said. “You walked to church. Catholic churches everywhere and you were supposed to attend the one closest. We walked in, all white folks, eyes were upon us, and the priest muttered from the altar that these new people were unwelcome.”

Miller’s mother would have none of it. “‘That man is not going to put me out of my church,’ she said, and she sat in the front row every Sunday and always prayed for the conversion of that priest,” said Miller, who winked. “Three years later on my parents’ anniversary, he came to the house to bless them. He was transformed.”

St. Michael’s choir sang “We Shall Overcome,” bringing a wide smile to the preacher’s face. Miller heard the spiritual for the first time in 1963, at age 17, in the middle of the street during a protest against segregation.

“That song made me a part of something bigger than myself. It drowned out the sounds of police dogs and sirens,” he said.

He was arrested, then bailed out by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“My punishment was my mother and her tears. ‘Never do that again!’ she said. But I did,” said Miller, twinkle in his eye, alluding to a 2015 arrest for protesting police violence.

“Just because it’s unconstitutional doesn’t mean it don’t happen. You can make an impact. Five percent of the people in this country took part in the civil rights movement. Five percent! That five percent changed the world.”

But aside from Emmett Till, there was another child who occupies space in Deacon Miller’s head. 1957, first day at his new school, note on his desk: “Dear Arthur, I like you. Who do you like?”—and there was a box to check. Victoria was her name, and day after day Miller got the same note, which he discarded. Then he noticed that Victoria was bullied by other kids.

“She sat alone at lunch; they knocked over her milk, thought it was funny, threw snowballs at her, threw lit matches in her locker, thought it was funny. She always sat closest to the door so she’d get a jump on the bullies in the hallway,” he recalled.

Miller was trying to make new friends and get by.

Victoria didn’t come to the senior prom or high school graduation. “I never saw Victoria again.” His lifelong regret? Not sticking up for Victoria back in grade school.

“I might as well have been on the other side with the police dogs,” he said with a shake of his head.

“If there was ever an 11th commandment,” he added, with a grin full of heaven, “Thou shalt not be a bystander!”


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