August 28th 1955: Emmett Till murdered
On this day in 1955, the 14-year-old African-American boy Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi. While visiting family in the state, Till allegedly flirted with the young white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant while buying candy. Bryant told her husband and a few nights later he and his half-brother abducted Till and brutally tortured and murdered him. His mutilated body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie river; Till’s face was unrecognisable, but he was identified by the ring he wore engraved with his father’s initials that his mother gave him before he left for Mississppi. The viciousness of this unprovoked, racially-motivated crime sent shockwaves throughout the nation. The case drew attention to the oppression of African-Americans throughout the nation and provided a name and a face to the threat of lynching. Till’s mother Mamie, a highly educated woman who went on to become a devoted fighter for African-American equality, insisted on an open-casket funeral in order to show the world what was done to her young son. Thousands attended the funeral and thousands more saw the horrific images of Till’s body. Due to the fierce reactions the murder had engendered it was a particularly painful, but sadly expected, outcome when the all-white jury in Mississippi acquitted Till’s killers, despite Till’s great-uncle openly identifying them in court. A few months later the killers, now protected by double jeopardy laws, sold their story to Look magazine and openly confessed to the murder in chilling detail. Taking place a year after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, the outrage over the murder galvanised the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. 100 days after Emmett Till’s murder Rosa Parks, on her way back from a rally for Till hosted by the then-unknown Martin Luther King Jr., refused to give up her seat for a white man on an Alabama bus. This sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thus beginning the movement that would result in the dismantling of the system of Jim Crow segregation and win successes in promoting African-American social and political equality.
I had the fortune of having an incredible history teacher my junior year. He showed us the photo. He felt it important enough.
It was jarring.
I remember it clearly. It doesn’t look real. I remember taking the time to look at everyone’s faces in the room. I don’t know where they are now, but I do remember that it affected everyone in that classroom on some level.
Ever since seeing this, I have carried it with me. When Trayvon Martin was shot, I thought about this. When Michael Brown was shot and Ferguson lit up, I thought about this.
This is 59 years later. This is *still* happening. We’ve come far, but not far enough.
For those of you who have not seen it I challenge you to seek it out. Google it. Go to a library, find a book with his face in it.
And think about any time someone has thought or flat-out said that people who are constantly posting about Michael Brown are overreacting, and that their concerns are ‘par for the course,’ or worse, of no merit at all.
I guarantee you those people have not seen Emmett Till.
They have not seen what this kind of hate looks like to those who are threatened with it, or live in fear of it.