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Emmett Till’s Death Could Easily Have Been Forgotten. Here’s How It Became a Civil Rights Turning Point Instead

6 minute read

There are many startling things about the Emmett Till case. But, 63 years after his death, perhaps the most startling of all is the fact that Americans know his name, even recognize his face.

Back in the summer of 1955, when J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant savagely beat the 14-year-old Chicago kid, shot him in the head, weighted his body down and dumped it in the Tallahatchie River, they thought that was the end of it.

Till had whistled at Bryant’s wife Carolyn, or spoken suggestively to her, or laid hands on her — the story kept changing. It was the classic Southern tale of a black male accused of violating the region’s taboo against interracial intimacy. Literally thousands of African American men were lynched under such accusations.

The civil rights leader Aaron Henry once remarked that the most surprising thing about the Till story was not its horror but the fact that white people even noticed. After all, black boys had been lynched for decades with impunity. African American bodies were not supposed to reemerge, and they certainly were not supposed to stir national and even international outrage.

But this one did. Killing Till and dumping his body did not end the story, quite the contrary. Thirty-eight articles in TIME magazine have discussed Emmett Till since 1955. Daily newspaper databases reveal even more extensive coverage. In the New York Times alone Till appears in 600 articles.

Most of the Till coverage came in the first six months: The discovery of the body; the deeply emotional funeral in Chicago (to which 100,000 South Siders came to pay their last respects); the indictments and trial, when nationally famous reporters swarmed tiny Sumner, Miss., and television cameras caught the scene outside the courthouse. Day after day, Till was headline news.

But then the story disappeared. There were few articles in the press commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Till slaying, even fewer on the 25th. Early histories of the Civil Rights Movement barely mentioned him.

More accurately, the Till story became segregated, living on among African Americans, not whites.

Young black activists, who sometimes referred to themselves as “the Emmett Till Generation,” carried his memory into their struggles of the ’60s. John Lewis, Anne Moody and Muhammad Ali all recalled their shock at seeing Till’s funeral photos in Jet magazine, Emmett in his coffin, his face a grizzly ruin. They recalled too how the story gave them grim determination to change things. The photos became part of “Jim Crow wisdom,” visual lessons parents gave children about growing up African American.

Seared though they were into the memory of the Till Generation, very few whites saw those pictures. No mainstream newspapers or magazines published them in 1955, or for three decades thereafter.

That changed in 1987 when the photos reemerged, most prominently in the popular documentary Eyes on the Prize, which began its history of the Civil Rights Movement with Emmett Till. Rather than avoid Till’s face, Eyes on the Prize lingered on it. Only then did the truism that Emmett Till’s martyrdom launched the Freedom Struggle start to take hold among whites.

What about the Till story today? Look more closely at those 600 Times articles focused on Emmett Till. One-third of them appeared in the last five years, and it is roughly the same for other newspapers and magazines. Histories, novels, television reports, news stories, websites, on-line publications, historical markers, scholarly essays, documentaries—all have come with growing frequency this century.

Current events brought Emmett Till’s name back. Oprah Winfrey called the Till memorial in Washington’s new African American History Museum “profound,” and added that Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Laquan MacDonald gave us “a new Emmett Till every week.” A few months later, LeBron James held a press conference when someone painted an ethnic slur on his front gate. The first thing James talked about was Mamie Till Bradley’s refusal to be silent in the face of her son’s murder. Then late last year, Dave Chappelle ended his comedy special by discussing Carolyn Bryant’s confession that Emmett Till did nothing to deserve his fate.

This year alone, Emmett Till was in the headlines again when someone shot up the historical marker where his body was dumped, then again when Carolyn Bryant recanted her recantation that she lied about Till back in 1955, and again when the FBI announced it would reopen the case.

Why so much attention to a story once mostly forgotten? Because it speaks to our growing awareness that racism is on the rise, that it did not disappear with slavery or Jim Crow, that we never became a “post-racial” society.

Till’s is a story we can grasp, not of unnamed millions but of a single knowable martyr to racial hatred. The sadism of his killers, the horrific beating they inflicted on the boy still shock us today. The Till case also reminds us of our long history of racism in criminal justice, from policing all the way through trial and incarceration. His fate reminds us too that white supremacy was never just a set of ideas and opinions, but a charter for violence inflicted on living bodies.

Above all, the face of Emmett Till embodies America’s tragic racial history, the good-looking lad smiling on Christmas Day, that same innocent face smashed to a hideous death mask on the long lonely Mississippi night of his murder.

Racism is the shape-shifting demon that America wrestles once again. Lies proliferate about minorities, the kind that got young Emmett Till lynched. So we continue to retell his story, to probe its meanings, to expose and explain what happened. Just as Anne Frank became the young martyr whose story helps us grasp Nazi horror, so Emmett Till’s is the face that reveals white supremacist depravity. His ghost haunts us because his murder exposes racism’s bloodthirsty heart.

And so, 63 years later, we know his face, we know his name. In his lynching lies shame, in remembering it lies hope.

Elliott Gorn is Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. He is author of Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till available now from Oxford University Press.

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