Emmett Till's Murder

City Called Heaven
Songwriter: Traditional
Performed by: Mahalia Jackson

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The brutal murder of Emmett Till, age 14, by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, horrified most Americans and fueled the young activists who sparked the 1960's Civil Rights Movement. Till's mother wanted an open casket funeral "so all the world can see what they did to my boy." The sorrow song, City Called Heaven, also known as Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow, expresses the despair and sadness so many people felt not only at Till's funeral, but upon seeing the photograph of his mutilated corpse that appeared in Jet magazine, a publication widely read in the African American community.

Known as the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson was passionately involved in the Civil Rights Movement with her power of song. She sings:

I am an old pilgrim of sorrow
And I'm left in this whole wide world
I'm left in this world alone
I have no hope, but tomorrow, Lord
But I'm trying to make a heaven, Lord, My home.

Studs Turkel, the historian, author, and host of a long-running Chicago radio show, said that Mahalia Jackson "explained to me that the spiritual wasn't simply about Heaven over there, 'A City Called Heaven.' No, the city is here, on Earth. And so, as we know, slave songs were code songs. It was not a question of getting to Heaven, but rather to the free state of Canada or a safe city in the North -- liberation here on Earth!"

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, folkways.


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