ALSIP, Illinois — Sometimes the strongest bonds we form are with those we never meet.
In 2020, Marquette University professor Cedric Burrows began what's now an annual pilgrimage to the grave of Emmett Till. On Monday, July 25, the birthday he shares with Till, Burrows made the trip again.
"Feeling, like, a gambit of emotions. Usually, when I go it's a solemn thing. And so I always feel the weight and the heaviness of the moment," said Burrows. "To go there and see his final resting place, realizing that he was only a teenager who never really fully experienced life."
Burrows was about the same age as Till when he learned about the 14-year-old boy's lynching in Mississippi in 1955. His middle-school class watched a documentary in the mid-90s.
"They actually show his body in the casket. In the class, we all had this gasp, and it got very quiet. The teacher was emotional about it. We were emotional about it. And we started having this conversation about race."
Today, Burrows leads that conversation as an associate professor of English at Marquette. He teaches the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and African American culture and social movements.
It was during the protests following George Floyd's death that Burrow's thoughts returned to Till. A Chicago native, Till is buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, just over 90 minutes from the Marquette campus.
During his latest visit, Burrows placed a bouquet of white flowers on Till's grave. He also updated Till on the passing of a bill that bears his name.
In March, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law, making lynching a federal hate crime.
For Burrows, his annual return is a chance to pause from his work, but remind himself of why he does it.
"It feels like now, I have my purpose again about what I do," he said. "So, this shows me a reminder. Especially the last two years [of] research, talking to people about race and the civil rights movement."
On Monday, Till would've turned 81 years old. Burrows, born 40 years apart, turned 41.
"The fact that we share the same birthday, it told me that maybe this is a continuation of my purpose and making sure Till isn't erased from the narrative. And that we need to confront our society to make sure that another Emmett Till or Trayvon Martin doesn't happen."