Why is it important to know the story of Emmett Till? Especially in the North, I have found that still too few people know this history (one civil rights “author” from Santa Fe, New Mexico chided me recently for writing about Till and this event. “You are just trying to drum up publicity,” he said. “And it’s not even important”).
It is important, because the story of this young school boy and his horrific murder deeply affected the modern civil rights movement and how history of the movement is now being told, and may soon be presented in a Hollywood film. Historians are finally writing more articles and books about this significant event of the modern Civil Rights Movement, since the FBI several years ago re-opened the investigation of Till’s murder. (This includes fictional accounts and plays.)
Mrs. Till wrote the best account, and I highly recommend her book as a place to start —
In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American teenager from Chicago, was brutally murdered by at least two white men while he was visiting relatives in Mississippi. His murder and the subsequent trial of his accused killers became a lightning rod for moral outrage, both at the time and even to this day. The case was not just about the murder of a teenage boy. It was also about a new generation of young people committing their lives to social change. As historian Robin Kelley states, The Emmett Till case was a spark for a new generation to commit their lives to social change. They said, “We’re not gonna die like this. Instead, we’re gonna live and transform the South so people won’t have to die like this.” And if anything, if any event of the 1950s inspired young people to be committed to that kind of change, it was the lynching of Emmett Till.
Till’s murder quickly became a rallying cry for civil rights protest, transforming a heinous crime into a springboard for justice. The Montgomery Bus Boycott followed closely on the heels of the case. Rosa Parks is quoted as saying, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.”
Black men, including black teenage boys, had been brutally lynched by white men before the murder of Emmett Till. So it was no surprised that Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were acquitted for this crime, since other white men had also gone unpunished for the murders they committed (and even confessed to committing outside of the courtroom).
So why, then, did the lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent trial “set in concrete the determination of people to move forward,” according to Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, in a way that previous events of a similar nature did not?
What factors contributed to making this event a pivotal moment in the history of the civil rights movement? The answer to this question reveals the dynamic relationship between individual actions and historical context and highlights the power of courageous acts to transform society.
I would hope that people who learn this history come away with an understanding of the events surrounding the murder of Emmett Till, with an awareness of how their historical context shapes their actions, just as their actions have the potential to shape history. There are many, books written about this young man so I suggest that you google around and find one to read, if you are still unfamiliar with this important event. Mrs. Till wrote the best book, so you could start here, with Death of Innocence
Interested in learning more? Here’s nother book link … Who Killed Emmett Till?
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