“I am sure you read of the lynch-murder of young Emmett Till of Chicago,” Rosa Parks wrote to a friend soon after the 14-year-old was abducted, tortured and killed in Mississippi in 1955. “This case could be multiplied many times in the South, not only Miss., but Ala, Georgia, Fla.”
A month after his killers (who later confessed) were acquitted, Parks joined an overflow crowd at Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery to hear T. R. M. Howard speak on the Till case. King introduced the fiery physician from Mound Bayou, who spoke passionately about the assassinations of George Lee and Lamar Smith and told the story of Emmett Till in riveting detail. Parks had read about the lynching and wept at the gruesome photograph in Jet, but Howard’s story was a powerful firsthand account. His speech moved her deeply and preoccupied her for days. Only four days later Parks defied the segregation laws on a Montgomery city bus. The driver insisted that she move. Thinking of Emmett Till, she said, Parks refused to do so. Her subsequent arrest provided the occasion for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The impact of the Till lynching resonated across America for years, touching virtually everyone who heard it, but the case had its most profound effect on a generation of African Americans two decades younger than Parks. Folks of all ages discussed the Till case in barbershops, churches, and living rooms north and south. For black youth across the country, however, the Till lynching became a decisive moment in the development of their consciousness around race.
“The murder just shocked me,” recalled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a legendary star in the NBA and later an accomplished author. “I began thinking of myself as a black person for the first time, not just a person.”
Muhammad Ali recalled the effect of Till’s death on him: “I realized that this could just as easily have been a story about me or my brother.”
Indianapolis’ Richard Hatcher, the first African American elected mayor of a major U.S. city, said the killing made him “very bitter and angry towards white people. That’s how I felt at that particular time.” A woman who grew up in Chicago and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and later became a civil rights activist remembered, “The first time I was really confronted with this black-white issue was with Emmett Till. That really slapped me in the face.”
Joyce Ladner, a Mississippi native who became a renowned activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), called herself and the other young blacks who grew up in the 1950s “the Emmett Till generation.” Charles McDew, eventually chair of SNCC, said that all the young people in the movement “knew where they were when they saw the pictures of Emmett Till’s body.”
For Julian Bond, who worked with SNCC and later became chair of the national board of the NAACP, the Till case was one of the key events that “provided stepping stones leading inexorably toward my involvement in the freedom struggle.” He was “moved along the path to later activism by the graphic pictures that appeared in Jet magazine of Emmett Till’s swollen and misshapen body.”
Fay Bellamy Powell, who later worked with SNCC, was horrified at the coverage of the Till case and yet steeled for the struggles to come: “My spirit allowed me a glimpse of the future, saying, ‘Don’t worry about this. You will have an opportunity to address this madness. You will assist in showing the world the face of this evil.’ ”
With style and daring, “the Emmett Till generation” showed the world a great deal when they launched the sit-ins that swept across the South in the spring of 1960. Four freshmen at North Carolina A&T walked into the Greensboro Woolworth’s department store on Monday, Feb. 1, bought a number of personal items, then sat at the segregated lunch counter and asked to be served. The four remained for almost an hour, until the lunch counter closed.
On Tuesday 25 men and four women, all students at A&T, occupied the lunch counter. On Wednesday 63 students participated, joined in the afternoon by three white students from Greensboro College. On Thursday hundreds more black students became involved. By the end of the week students in other cities and towns in North Carolina — Raleigh, Charlotte, Fayetteville, High Point, Concord, and Elizabeth City — sat in at segregated lunch counters.
By the end of the month young people across the South were organizing sit-ins. Within two months the demonstrations had spread to 54 cities in nine states; within a year more than a hundred cities witnessed similar protests. A new, mass-based phase of the civil rights movement, a distinctive radicalism rooted in nonviolent direct action, had begun. Driving it were young people, many of whom had been inspired to action by the story of a boy their age lynched in Mississippi.
Six decades later a white police officer shot and killed a young black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The local grand jury’s decision not to prosecute the officer expanded and enraged a national movement born of similar killings, and young protesters throughout the United States chanted, “Say his name! Emmett Till! Say his name! Emmett Till!” His name, invoked alongside a litany of the names of unarmed black men and women who died at the hands of police officers, remained a symbol of the destructiveness of white supremacy.
Hundreds of young people thronged the fence in front of the White House, chanting, “How many black kids will you kill? Michael Brown, Emmett Till!” Black Lives Matter — a movement, not just a hashtag — quickly became symbolic shorthand for the struggle. Much like the Emmett Till protests of the 1950s, these demonstrations raged from coast to coast and fueled scores of local campaigns. Police brutality against men and women of color provided the most urgent grievance but represented a range of festering racial problems: the criminalization of black bodies; the militarization of law enforcement; mass incarceration; racial injustice in the judicial system; the chasms of inequality between black and white and rich and poor; racial disparities in virtually every measure of well-being, from employment and education to health care.
Such moments could make movements, wrote the political scientist Frederick Harris in the Washington Post, and become “like the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 … transformative episodes that remake perceptions and force a society to abandon abhorrent practices.”
On Nov. 17, 2014, as these protests spread across the country, a former chair of SNCC stood in the rain on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol with a shovel. In an orchard of umbrellas Rep. John Lewis (pictured here) helped plant an American sycamore in honor of a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was murdered almost 60 years earlier. In his 1998 memoir, Lewis writes that when he was 15, “and at the edge of my own manhood just like him,” he had been “shaken to the core” by the lynching of Emmett Till. Among those wielding shovels with Lewis were both U.S. senators from Mississippi and Eric Holder (seen behind Lewis in photo), the first African American U.S. attorney general.
“Even today, the pain from this unspeakable crime, this unspeakable tragedy, still feels raw,” Holder declared, but the tree would become Emmett Till’s “living memorial, here at the heart of our Republic, in the shadow of the United States Capitol.”
Till perished senselessly and far too soon, the attorney general said, but “it can never be said that he died in vain. His tragic murder galvanized millions to action.” After Holder spoke, reporters asked him about the relationship between Emmett Till and the contemporary racial conflagrations in Ferguson and elsewhere. “The struggle goes on,” replied Holder. “There is an enduring legacy that Emmett Till has left us with that we still have to confront as a nation.”
Decades after his death Emmett continues to be a national metaphor for our racial nightmares. And difficult though it is to bear, his story can leave us reaching for our better angels and moving toward higher ground. By suffering comes wisdom, the ancient Greeks tell us, and Mamie Bradley’s decision to take history in her hands and help build a movement distills that harder wisdom and leaves it in our own. “The struggle of humanity against power,” writes Milan Kundera, “is always the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
America is still killing Emmett Till, and often for the same reasons that drove the violent segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, many things have changed; the kind of violence that snatched Till’s life strikes only rarely. A white supremacist gunman slaughtering nine black churchgoers in a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2014, however, reminds us that the ideology of white supremacy remains with us in its most brutal and overt forms.
“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” the murderer said as he fired round after round into his African American victims. He could have been quoting Judge Thomas Brady’s 1954 Black Monday or a Reconstruction-era political pamphlet. White America’s heritage of imagining blacks as fierce criminals, intent on political and sexual domination, as threatening bodies to be monitored and controlled, has never disappeared. These delusions have played a compelling and bloody role for centuries. The historian Stephen Kantrowitz writes that the murders in Charleston are “an expression and a consequence of American history — a history that the nation has hardly reckoned with, much less overcome.”
Evidence that the past is still with us is abundant. Racial hatred drove a group of suburban white teenagers to beat and murder James Craig Anderson, a black man selected at random in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 26, 2011. One teenager yelled “White power” as he returned from the assault, and several of the others shouted racial epithets. Federal and state courts charged 10 of the youths with the murder and with a series of similar attacks over a period of months. The judges sentenced one of them to two life terms and the others to terms ranging from 18 and a half months to four years. Denying that such violence is common, the Hinds County district attorney said in 2011, “I do think because of the political and economic structure and the re-engineering of society, it appears that certain parts of the country and Mississippi feel their culture is under attack.”
Certainly politics in the United States in the first two decades of the 21 century reflect, as the nominal gains of the civil rights movement continue to make their claims on our society — most notably the election of America’s first African-American president — that many white citizens feel that something has been and is being taken from them. Nearly 40 years of stagnating wages and growing inequality have done nothing to ease their anxieties. Many, too, are afraid and seek to build walls rather than bridges between our increasingly divided nations, separate, unequal, and often hostile; immigration has rendered our predicaments increasingly complex — and, for many, more frightening.
Most African American children grow up in a world far more impoverished, bleak and confined than their white counterparts. Their families fall behind white families in virtually every measure of well-being: wealth and income levels, wages, unemployment rates, health and mortality figures, levels of incarceration, and crime victimization rates. And their often lethally divergent experiences with law enforcement only mirror what Maya Angelou calls “These Yet to Be United States.”
America is still killing Emmett Till, but often by means less direct than bludgeons and bullets. The most successful killers of African American youth are poverty, resegregated and neglected public schools, gang violence, and lack of economic opportunities. Violence and exploitation against black women scar whole communities, and mothers still bear the burden of burying black sons. In many inner cities the drug trade is the only enterprise that is hiring, while the national unemployment rate for young black men is well over twice that for other young men.
The so-called war on drugs successfully targets young African American men, even though blacks and whites use and sell illicit drugs at roughly the same rate. The enormous incarcerated and judicially supervised population of the United States has become disproportionately a population of color. Writes Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A society that protects some people through a system of schools, government-backed home loans and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.”
African American males experience the highest imprisonment rate of all demographic groups. In Washington, D.C., the country’s capital, roughly 75 percent of young black men can anticipate serving time in prison, and the percentage is still higher in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The criminal justice system in some states imprisons black men on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times higher than those of white men. In major cities where the drug war rages, as many as 80 percent of young black men have criminal records and thus can be legally discriminated against in housing, employment and often voting for the rest of their lives.
These statistics reflect the emergence of a new racial caste system, born from the one that killed Emmett Till. “While the blame for the grisly mutilation of Till has been placed upon two cruel men,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1958, “the ultimate responsibility for [the Till lynching] and other tragic events must rest with the American people themselves.”
We are still killing black youth because we have not yet killed white supremacy. As a political program white supremacy avers that white people have a right to rule. That is obviously morally unacceptable, and few of its devotees will speak its name. But that enfeebled faith is not nearly so insidious and lethal as its robust, covert and often unconscious cousin: the assumption that God has created humanity in a hierarchy of moral, cultural and intellectual worth, with lighter-skinned people at the top and darker-skinned people at the bottom.
Unfortunately this poisonous notion is as dangerous in the minds of people of color as it is in the minds of whites. “The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another — or others — always has been and always will be a recipe for murder,” writes James Baldwin. It also remains a recipe for toxic self-hatred.
The ancient lie remains lethal. It shoots first and dodges questions later. White supremacy leaves almost half of all African-American children growing up in poverty in a de-industrialized urban wasteland. It abandons the moral and practical truth embodied in Brown v. Board of Education and accepts school resegregation even though it is poisonous to the poor. Internalized white supremacy in the minds of black youth guns down other black youth, who learn from media images of themselves that their lives are worth little enough to pour out in battles over street corners. White supremacy also trembles the hands of some law enforcement officers and vigilantes who seem unable to distinguish between genuine danger and centuries-old phantoms.
To see beyond the ghosts, all of us must develop the moral vision and political will to crush white supremacy — both the political program and the concealed assumptions. We have to come to grips with our own history — not only genocide, slavery, exploitation and systems of oppression, but also the legacies of those who resisted and fought back and still fight back. We must find what Dr. King called the “strength to love.” New social movements must confront head-on the racial chasm in American life. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” Baldwin instructs, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Our strivings will unfold in a fallen world, among imperfect people who have inherited a deeply tragic history. There will be no guarantee of success. But we have guiding spirits who still walk among us. We have the courtroom of historical memory, where the Rev. Moses Wright still stands and says, “There he is.” We have the boundless moral landscape where Mamie Bradley still shakes the earth with her candor and courage. We have the bold voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding justice now and reminding us to remember Emmett Till, to say his name. We have the enduring NAACP and the interracial “Moral Mondays” coalition spreading out of North Carolina, like the sit-ins once did, and dozens of other similar crusades across the country. We can still hear the marching feet of millions in the streets of America, all of them belonging to the children of Emmett Till.
© Simon & Schuster. Excerpt from “The Bloodof Emmett Till” by Timothy B. Tyson is published with permission from Simon & Schuster.
ABOUT THE STORY
Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago was visiting family in Mississippi when Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam abducted, beat and shot him for allegedly whistling at Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, who now admits it never happened. Then his body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. The men were acquitted but later confessed to a Look magazine reporter. Outrage over the incident fueled the civil rights movement and continues to fuel the fight for racial equality today. This excerpt from Tyson’s book examines the teenager’s enduring legacy.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Timothy B. Tyson is senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern culture at Duke Divinity School and adjunct professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina. He is the author of “Blood Done Sign My Name,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and “Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power.” He serves on the executive board of the North Carolina NAACP and the UNC Center for Civil Rights.