Three Things You Need To Know About Emmett Till, part one

The case of the murder of Emmett Till was recently reopened by the United States Department Of Justice. I was one of many who were pleased to see this happen. It was surprising, I will admit, because the Department Of Justice is currently lead by Jeff Sessions, a former prosecutor and Senator from Alabama, and a man infamous for his opposition to Civil Rights and his resistance to the plight of murdered African Americans.

Still, the case is reopened, and for that I compliment Mr. Sessions for his action. I believe in giving credit when it is due.

For those Americans who are unaware of the case of Emmett Till, I believe that some explanation is necessary. For those Americans who are unaware of the influence of Emmet Till, I will explain that as well.

The three things you need to know about Emmett Till are simply,

  1. His death was the original Black Lives Matter moment

  2. His death was a travesty of justice, a tradition in the American South.

  3. His death launched the modern Civil Rights Movement.

The young boy known as Emmett Till was living with his mother in Chicago. In the Summer of 1954 he was sent to Money, Mississippi to stay with his uncle, Mose Wright.

Emmet arrived in Money, Mississippi, a town with only a handful of shops and little for any young boy to do. He was completely unaware of the rules regarding how African Americans we expected to behave. These rules were formal laws called “Jim Crow”, but carried along with them a long list of norms than were de facto for African Americans.

On what must have been a sweltering Summer day in Mississippi, Emmett was in the general store in Money, hanging around with other young friends. The story says that Emmet “got fresh” with a white woman in the store. I think this means he said something obnoxious, as young teens are famous for doing. He said, according to one account, “Bye, baby!” as the white woman was leaving the store.

This must have gained him many astonished gasps and credibility with his teenage friends. Little did he know that it also garnered him the notice of the white adults around him.

Late that night, a car with two men and one woman arrived at the home of Mose Wright. According to Mose, two men came to the door of his house demanding to “see the boy who did all that talk!” They were armed, according to Mose, and they proceeded to take Emmett away in the car, off into the night. Mose Wright would never see his nephew again.

The woman who started all of this later recounted her accusations against Till, speaking to a reporter from the New York Times.

His body was discovered in a nearby river, mutilated and tied to a large industiral fan. When his body was returned to his mother in Chicago, she could barely recognize him. Despite being overcome with grief, Mammy Mosley, Till’s mother, was determined that the whole world should see her son’s face. She insisted on an open casket funeral for exactly that reason.

image-27.jpegThe pictures of Till’s dead body were photographed by Jet Magazine, a nationally published monthly that served African American readers. The front page pictures of Till decrepit face were intentionally shocking to anyone passing a nestand across the country. It was an early attempt to make the murder of African Americans into a national debate by enlisting the news media for the cause.

This lesson would be repeated by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when they mobilized protest marches for the purpose of publicizing the suffering of African Americans under Jim Crow laws in the American South. In this way his death was the original Black Lives Matter moment.

It is sad to see that the nation has still not learned that for all lives to matter, we must first acknowledge that Black lives have never mattered to the majority.

Today there is a debate about the killing of unarmed African Americans in the United States. Until the Presidency of Donald Trump this issue met with much attention in the media. Unfortunately, the killings continue but the issue has been overshadowed by the spotlight on the chaos in the White House on a daily basis. It is further evidence that the attention span of the American electorate is easily distracted from the issue of Black lives, showing how little value they have in the minds of the white majority.

We need to continue the calls for police reform. We need to continue to call out efforts to minimize awareness of mass incarceration. We need to keep our eyes on the prize of racial justice for all Americans, even though the media circus is much more interested in the latest salacious tweets from the Executive Branch.

In the next installment of Three Things You Need To Know About Emmett Till we will examine how his killers acquittal was a travesty of justice, yet not unexpected in the tradition of legal jurisprudence in the American South.

In the third installment we will examine how the murder of Emmett Till launched the Modern Civil Rights Movement.

Before we go on, please watch the short documentary segment from Eyes On The Prize. It will give you more of the original story from which to be informed, educated and outraged. Enjoy!


Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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