On what would have been Emmett Till's 80th birthday, about 50 people gathered in St. Paul on Sunday to celebrate his legacy and call for justice 66 years after he was lynched.

Many of them were family members of Black men killed by police who also want to see accountability for their own loved ones.

The group, including Till's cousin and Twin Cities resident Deborah Watts, gathered in front of the governor's residence in St. Paul, where they sang "Happy Birthday" to Till and released black and white balloons. As the balloons floated into the sky, the group started marching around the block, chanting "Say his name: Emmett Till!"

Till, a Black boy, was kidnapped, tortured and killed for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. He was 14 years old.

His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, pushed for an open-casket funeral so that people could see her boy's brutalized body, which became a rallying cry in what became known as the civil rights movement.

Sunday's rally was organized by the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, which was co-founded by Watts, and Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence.

"Our mission is to connect the past to the present, to connect the dots between what happened to Emmett Till and what is happening today with police killings," Watts said. The foundation offers programs, curriculum and scholarships designed to educate people about Till's story, and to support and encourage young adults.

Family members of Dolal Idd and Winston Smith, both Black men killed by Minnesota law enforcement officers within the past year, were also at Sunday's event. On Saturday, the foundation held a private dinner for several local families of those killed by police.

"[Till-Mobley] did something that sets a blueprint for a lot of other mothers and fathers who can stand up and fight for justice with dignity, class and determination," Watts said, adding later that "this is about turning pain into purpose."

Smith's brother, Kidale Smith, spoke during the rally. "If Emmett Till can't rest in peace, I can't rest in peace," he said. Idd's father, Bayle Adod Gelle, comforted him while holding a photo of his own son in his graduation robes.

"We stand in solidarity with all these other families and we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us," Watts said. "And justice is overdue."

Till's case was reopened in 2017, when Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman who said Till made sexual advances toward her in addition to whistling at her, told a historian that she lied about some details of what happened.

The foundation is pushing for an update on the case and for charges to be brought against Donham.

"We wish her to be treated like anyone else who committed a crime," Watts said. "The past is not the past until justice is served."

Watts is also leading a campaign for legislation that would establish support programs for families of those killed by police violence. A bill to create the Emmett Louis Till Victims Recovery Program was introduced in the Minnesota House in May.

The weekend marked the first large Minnesota event for the foundation, but Watts said she was touched by the engagement and support and wants to keep Minnesotans involved in the work.

"This has been an incredibly empowering, spiritual weekend," she said. "It's been a wonderful commemoration of Emmett Till's life and legacy."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440