Emmett Till: The Spark of the Civil Rights Movement
Ideology of Lynching
To be able to understand why the lynching of Emmett Till was such a significant event in the Civil Rights Movement, the term lynch must first be understood. Lynching is an idea that goes back into the times of slavery (Whitfield 1). Many were accused of rape, but most of the time murder (Whitfield 6). Others were accused of homicide, robbery, insulting whites, and other “offenses”. The total number of lynching victims was more than two and one-half times as many as number of whites put to death by lynching.
In the decades of the nineteenth and twentieth century, the lynching of blacks in the south became a method by which whites could terrorize blacks and maintain white supremacy. In the south from 1880 to 1960 whites feared and hated the Negroes, so they came up with the “lynch law” for social control. Between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 people were lynched, according to the archives of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (Whitfield 5). As you also read in Whitfield, the state of Mississippi alone (that which Emmett Till was visiting) had 534 black lynchings take place from 1882 to 1951 (Whitfield 5). Lynching is a criminal practice though it was very rare for a white man to get prosecuted or found guilty. Therefore, lynching was a fairly safe way for whites to keep blacks “under control” using racism. Many whites believed that Negroes could only be controlled by fears, hence the reason for all the lynchings.
Emmett Till’s Story
Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941, and due to extreme racism would be viscously murdered on August 28, 1955 when he was only fourteen years old (Till-Mobley 3). The story of Emmett Till, and his murder, is one of brutality and severe racism that lives on as a historical landmark in time. In this paper, I will first discuss the background of the Emmett Till murder, followed by my argument that the murder of Emmett Till was not only the spark to the Civil Rights Movement, but also an event that would encourage and inspire African Americans to carry the movement throughout the 1960’s and ensure that they gain their rights as American Citizens to “Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness.”(U.S. Declaration of Independence)
Emmett Till grew up without his father, Louis Till who died in Italy in World War II due to “willful misconduct” (Till-Mobley 17). At the tender age of six years old Emmett was diagnosed with Polio as a result Emmett was left with a slight stutter (Till-Mobley 38). In spite of his illness Emmett grew up a happy child. He loved to tell jokes and often times paid people just to make him laugh. Emmett and his mother were very close and he once told her as long as she could bring home the bacon and provide, he could take care of the house.
The Till’s lived in a middle class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Illinois. In their neighborhood they were surrounded by black-owned businesses, and for Emmett this was very inspirational and motivating (Till-Mobley 84). There was everything from black-owned and operated insurance companies to, black beauty salons, and pharmacists.
In the summer 1955, after pleading with his mother, Emmett Till was finally going to get to go see his relatives in Money, Mississippi. Emmett’s great uncle Moses Wright had come up from Mississippi to visit his family and on his way back home, Uncle Moses was taking Emmett’s cousin Wheeler and Emmett with him in order to spend time with their relatives (Mobley-Till 99). Ordinarily allowing children to visit relatives would be an opportunity not only for the child to bond with their extended family but it also provided a chance for the parent to get a break, but not in this case. Emmett and his mother Mamie lived up North in Chicago and in the 1950’s things were very different for African Americans in the North than in the South. Before Mamie Till allowed her fourteen year old son to board the bus she gave him a signet ring that belonged to his father, and looked him square in the eye and told him to “be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly” (Maxwell 1). After Emmett’s death, Mamie was quoted saying,
“Emmett was born and raised in Chicago, so he didn’t know how to be humble to white people. I warned him before he came down here; I told him to be very careful how he spoke and to say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no ma’am’ and not to hesitate to humble himself if he had to get down on his knees . . . I was trying to really pound into him that Mississippi was not Chicago . . . I explained to Emmett that if he met a white woman, he should step off the street, lower his head, and not look up. And he thought that was the silliest thing he’d ever heard.”
Emmett his cousin Wheeler and his great-uncle Moses arrived in Money, Mississippi on August 21st, 1955. While there, the boys got to do things that weren’t as common in Chicago like fishing or going camping. On the morning of August 24th, 1955, Emmett and his cousins drove his uncle’s car into town and stopped at Bryant’s Grocery store to buy candy (“Death of Emmett Till”). Before entering the store Till, who was used to interacting with white people showed some pictures of his white friends back home to some of the local boys outside the store. Once they saw the pictures the boys then dared Emmett to go and strike up a conversation with the woman inside, who just happened to be the owner’s wife, Carolyn Bryant. While in the store Emmett allegedly flirted and wolf whistled at the store owner’s wife. To modern day society this may not be a big deal, however down south in the 1950’s this was considered a punishable crime (“Death of Emmett Till”). After the boys left the store they decided against telling their uncle to avoid getting into any trouble.
It wasn’t until four days later on August 28th at about 2:30 a.m. Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, showed up at the Wright family’s house with pistol in hand (Whitfield 20). When they busted in the door they made it extremely clear by saying “were looking for the boy that did that talking”. Moses Wright pleaded with the two men screaming that “he is only 14, he’s from up North” implying that he did not know better, but the two men ignored his desperate plea. As they escorted young Till out of the house and to Milam’s truck Bryant asked one of the passenger’s “is this the right one”? The person responded yes and the truck drove off. That night both Moses and Elizabeth Wright immediately contacted Mamie Till back in Chicago and informed her of her son’s disappearance.
The local sheriff and their family tried to look for him in the most palpable places. In other words they looked in places that black people were usually left such as along riverbanks and under bridges. Sure enough three days later young Emmett was found in the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbwire. His right eye was hanging out of his face, his nose was broken and he had a bullet hole in the side of his head. The only recognizable feature on Till was the ring his mother had given him shortly before he boarded the bus to Money (Whitfield 20-23).
Despite the attempts of the Mississippi sheriff’s department to keep the body and bury it without any ceremony or witness, Mamie Till was able to obtain a writ of court that forced the return of Emmett’s mangled body back to Chicago where she ordered his it to be on display for five days with the intent of exposing what had happened to her only son. During those five days over 50 thousand people viewed Emmett Till’s mutilated body. This is the link to a picture of what people viewed when looking into the open casket of Emmett Till.
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were named as the suspects for Emmett’s disappearance and were arrested on August 29. They lied about killing the young boy and said they had only taken him to scare him but that they let him go afterwards. The two men were taken to trial and it began on September 19, and by September 23 the all-white jury was ready to announce its ruling. Both men were acquitted of the charges. The jury only took sixty-seven minutes to deliberate, and it was said by a jury member that they had even had a soda break in order to make the ruling seem as if they had thought about it for a longer time.
Many people were outraged by the outcome of the trial. This trial infuriated people in the United States as well as Europe. The trial did no justice to the boy who had to suffer through the racism and brutal beating that ended his life so soon. Emmett Till’s death and unfair trial did bring about one positive thing, and that was that it not only helped strengthen the emerging civil rights movement as many would argue, but it actually sparked and sustained a movement for all blacks freedom and civil rights.
Emmett Till In Regards To Civil Rights
In this portion of the essay I will interrogate the underlying causes and ideals throughout the Civil Rights Movement, and show how they correlate to the death of Emmett Till. To start, I will quote Wilma King from the book African American Childhoods on the topic of inspiring the black youth to make a stand and be an active part of the Civil Rights Movement; King said, “Defining moments, such as the Emmett Till Murder, affected black youngsters to the extent that many of them became ‘warriors’ for equal rights in public places and in schools across the South” (King 156).
One major issue in the Civil Rights Movement that can be seen as an effect of the murder of Emmett Till is the Brown vs. Board of Education II Supreme Court case. The original Brown vs. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954 overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson and stated that separate but equal was unconstitutional in schools and it was a huge breakthrough in the Civil Rights Movement, especially because the Supreme Court had agreed and argued that, “To separate them from others of similar age and qualification solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority…that may affect their minds and hearts in a way unlikely to ever be undone” (King 157).
Brown vs. Board of Education II, however, took place the next year in 1955 the same year that Emmett Till was murdered. It stated that school districts were to desegregate with all deliberate speed. There is a correlation here because after the lynching of Emmett Till, the African American Community began taking more interest in the well being of their youth. Blacks saw that it had gotten so bad that even their children were beginning to be heavily targeted by the racism and prejudice that was taking place. It was because of these feelings that blacks began to show more interest in ensuring that their children had all the best rights to education that they could. They realized that education was the single most important factor in improving social, economic, and political status, and that without integration blacks would never have the best facilities, or education tools. (King 157).
As I said before, Till’s death ignited the inspiration for many black children of his generation to fight the discrimination that surrounded them in the 1960’s. One boy named Tommy Lee Hudson talked about how the murder of Emmett Till puts a fire in him, and Joyce Ladner, a twelve year old girl from Forrest County Mississippi said, “The Till murder served as a grave incident that showed people how intractable a problem could be and how difficult a solution would be. So when the spark came in Mississippi to sit in the public library, for example, people who participated had been incensed by the Till murder. The Till incident was the catalyst” (King 164).
The murder of Emmett Till did not always have a helpful impact on the Civil Rights Movement however. Due to the brutality of the murder, and how miniscule the action Till had taken was, many blacks were left risking their lives to even stand against white supremacy (Whitfield 103). It gave whites and groups such as the KKK something to use as a scare tactic to keep blacks out of politics, voting, or just to keep them under control.
Though this can be seen as a very negative result, it also had a very positive impact. With the fear it took to stand up and fight for blacks’ rights, many would emerge as brave and courageous leaders. People like Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X are just a few of the common names associated with the Civil Rights movement that got their fame through nothing more than facing the fear of what “could happen”. Overall, the murder of Emmett Till being used to scare blacks was actually helpful in giving leadership to those who could carry such a weight on their shoulders (Whitfield 103).
Another positive effect the murder of Emmett Till had on our country and the Civil Rights Movement was in the court systems. After the trial in which both murderers Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam were acquitted of the charges, there was an outrage among blacks and also many whites. They felt that this only helped prove, yet again, how flawed our justice system was, and how badly it needed to be fixed. The NAACP began petitioning to the department of justice and going as high as the Supreme Court to try and ensure that something was done.
Millions of people saw this trial as a wakeup call to our government telling them that the court system needed to be more strictly and accurately enforced or it needed to be changed. However, trying to accomplish these changes are easier said than done as we see in this quote from inaugural address of the Governor of Mississippi James P. Coleman, to inform “our friends outside Mississippi…that the great overwhelming majority of the white people of Mississippi are not now guilty and never intend to be guilty of any murder, violence, or any other wrongdoing toward anyone; we do not any more approve of violence and lawlessness than you do” (Whitfield 62). This proving that he feels that things should not be changed due to a few “bad apples”.
To conclude, the brutal murder of Emmett Till was more than just a fourteen year old boy being killed due to racism. It was a spark and catalyst for something much bigger. As I discussed, it helped with many major court cases as well as sit-in movements and overall defiance of white supremacy. It also gave rise to some of the greatest Civil Rights leaders of all time, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, it brought the beginning of change in the flawed court systems in America, which would all help carry the movement throughout the fifties and sixties. Emmett Till, a young boy from Chicago with nothing more than an ambition to visit family in Mississippi became an icon and a lasting impression on a movement that would change the lives of black as drastically as the abolition of slavery. His death did more for civil rights and racial equality that anyone’s life could have done, and though it is a tragic story of suffering and death, in the end America grew stronger as a country, and the ideals of an entire society began to shift.
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2. Benson, Christopher, and Mamie Till-Mobley. Death of Innocence : The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. Chicago: One World/Ballantine, 2004.
3. “The Death of Emmett Till.” This Day in History. History.com. 15 Oct. 2008 .
4. Orr-Klopfer, M. Susan. The Emmett till Book. Morrisville: Lulu.com, 2007.
5. Whitfield, Stephen J. Death in the Delta : The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.
6. Younge, Gary. “Justice at Last.” Guardian.uk.co. 6 June 2005. The Guardian. 12 Oct. 2008 .
7. King, Wilma. African American Childhoods. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2005