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Remembering Emmett Till, Ted Kennedy, M.J. and DJ AM



Wow, this past weekend was a rough one. Sen. Edward Kennedy, "The Lion of the Senate," was memorialized and buried, and Adam Goldstein, better known as DJ AM, who recently survived a plane crash, was found dead from what appears to be a drug overdose.

This weekend also marked the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the day the levees broke and the hearts of millions of Americans broke with them as we watched our fellow citizens suffer while our government took way too long to respond. In addition, it marked the 54th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, a murder so gruesome that it forced our nation to finally recognize the hate that "separate and unequal" had fostered. The murder of a 14-year-old boy by grown men spurred what would be the most successful civil rights movement this country had ever seen.

In case you have forgotten, this was a young boy who was killed for whistling at a white woman -- allegedly. Grown men, who left his disfigured body to rot in the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around it with barbed wire, murdered him.

It was Till's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, who had enough of black boys being murdered because of the color of their skin, who insisted that her son's body be shown to the world so that people could truly see the face of racism. She had an open viewing and a casket with a glass top.

This is the same casket that the Burr Oak Cemetery thought so little of that they discarded it along with many others with the trash. This past weekend, Till's original casket found a final resting place at the Smithsonian.

Last weekend was also Michael Jackson's birthday, a man who has yet to be laid to rest, even though he died more than a month ago. It's ironic that a man who was burdened with insomnia still has not been laid to rest even in death. Nonetheless, his fans celebrated his life, paying homage to him through letters, music and dance.

What is the likelihood that all of these major events would happen on the same weekend?

Most would say slim to none. But I believe that all of these events came together to remind us to value life.

Often, we're focused on the wrong thing, caught up with the wrong folks, or just plain neglectful of what should be the most important parts of our lives -- our spiritual development, family and health. We are so busy trying to stay afloat in our competition-based society that we rarely take time to sit down and breathe, think, give thanks and to remember how precious life is.

But these four people, along with the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, communicated the importance of life to us, in their own ways.

Sen. Kennedy did so through his legislation and great ability to affect real change in this country. This man, who was often reminded of his flaws, was a rock for his family, the wives and children of his slain brothers, and an advocate for those who could not advocate for themselves.

DJ AM communicated the importance of life through his music and discussions about the most intimate parts of his life, like drug addiction, survivor's remorse and his ongoing battle with weight. He had just wrapped up a series for MTV on addiction. Even though he couldn't conquer his own demons, he still tried to help make a difference in the lives of others battling addiction.

Michael Jackson reminded us to value life through his music, lyrics, performances and humanitarian efforts. This is a man who gave away more money than he kept for himself and more money than any other entertainer on the planet.

Say what you will about these three men, but they made a real difference in our lives.

Emmett Till's young life and senseless death reminds us to value our children and respect people as individuals and collectively as human beings. Keeping his story alive is important so that we won't revisit the painful practices of the past. His tragic story -- and the stories of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina -- tell us not to discard the most important parts of ourselves. They represent our humanity and remind us that people are not disposable. Many of us are way too comfortable discarding people because they may not live up to who we think they should be when perhaps they are exactly who they are and where they are supposed to be.

As these recent and historical events collide, let's think about what their lives and deaths taught us -- the good and the bad ... but mostly the good.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is managing editor of She is an assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College and writes the blog Tune N (, which examines popular culture through the lens of race, class, gender and sexuality.

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