The Murder That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement

Nearly sixty years before Ferguson, a mother took a sacred stand against white terrorism.

ON A HIGH PLATFORM in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., sits a glass-topped casket. The museum’s deputy director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, has called it “one of our most sacred objects.”

The casket once held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African-American boy from Chicago who, while visiting family in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, reportedly whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant at a country store. A few nights later her husband and brother-in-law kidnapped Till, beating and murdering him before fastening a heavy industrial fan to his neck with wire and throwing the body into the Tallahatchie River. The local sheriff ordered Till’s body to be buried the same day it was found. Instead, one of Till’s great uncles intervened and made sure the body was returned to his mother in Chicago.

Mamie Till-Mobley allowed photographers from Jet and Ebony magazines to take pictures of Till’s mutilated face and insisted on an open casket and public viewings. Tens of thousands filed by Till’s broken body.

Till-Mobley’s choices, historian and award-winning author Timothy B. Tyson writes in his newest book, The Blood of Emmett Till, leveraged “the only influence America’s racial caste system granted her: public grief and moral outrage sufficient to shame and anger some fraction of the nation.” The funeral and the murderers’ acquittal a few weeks later produced outrage and resolve pivotal for the civil rights movement.

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam confessed to the killing in a Look magazine article a few months later. And Carolyn Bryant, in a 2008 interview with Tyson, confessed that she’d lied under oath when she said during the trial that Till grabbed and propositioned her in a crude and threatening manner: “That part’s not true,” she told Tyson. Speaking on the record for the first time in more than 50 years, Carolyn Bryant said, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

The story then, and in its retelling, has often focused on the hapless Northern boy’s violation of the South’s “race-and-sex taboo” rather than on the life-and-death struggle for human rights that was the context for the killing and intrinsic to both the taboo and the murder. As Tyson writes, many of the accounts at the time, “from the virulently defensive accounts of Mississippi and its customs to the self-righteous screeds of Northern critics, noted that Till had been at the wrong place at the wrong time and made the wrong choices.”

To counter this, Tyson details the political context of the killing. The North too had abundant racism—the bombing of homes of black people who had moved into traditionally white neighborhoods in Chicago being just one example. In the South segregation and the domination of blacks by whites was formal, omnipresent, and secured in large part by terror and disenfranchisement. Black leaders in Mississippi, many of them World War II veterans who fought for freedom overseas only to suffer abuse and limited rights in both the military and back home, began to build networks of activists in the late 1940s.They boycotted white service stations until the stations provided restrooms for people of color, held large annual rallies featuring nationally known black elected officials and celebrities, and tried to vote and register people to vote. White leaders devised new ways to block black people from voting, with economic reprisals and violence as reinforcement when quasi-legal maneuvers didn’t work. Tyson describes this as “slow trench warfare,” which continued through the early 1950s.

The battle heated up after the Supreme Court’s May 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. By late July white leaders in Mississippi founded the first Citizens’ Council, which sought to defend segregation by any means necessary—economic pressure officially, but also “in considerably starker terms.” One black man who was registered to vote “received an unsigned letter threatening, ‘Last warning. If you are tired of living, vote and die.” Businessman, activist, and pastor Rev. George Lee of Belzoni, Miss., died from a shotgun blast from a car that followed his one night in May 1955.

And two weeks before Emmett Till was kidnapped, a black farmer, Lamar Smith, “went to the courthouse in Brookhaven, Mississippi, to obtain more of the absentee ballots he was distributing to African Americans so that they could vote without being intimidated or attacked.” At 10 a.m. on a Saturday, with dozens of people nearby, he was attacked on the courthouse lawn by three white men, beaten, and then shot in the heart at close range.

It was a terror campaign, a continuation of the 300-year battle to maintain white supremacy. And while Emmett Till was not a voting rights activist or sent to desegregate a school—he was, by all reports, just a fun-loving kid—he was nonetheless a casualty of a dirty war.

The contemporary echoes are chilling, whether in reports of black men and boys gunned down by police (Jordan Edwards the most recent as of this writing), political maneuvering on voter IDs and redistricting, or the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This book evokes the powerful undertows and riptides of history that confront us in the daily news in this era when white supremacists are senior White House advisers.

Emmett Till’s casket is a reminder of a mother’s fierce courage in the worst moments of her life—a sacred stand against white terrorism. She asserted that her black son’s life mattered and would not be disappeared. But it might also remind us: History is never just about the past.

Photo: Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Julie Polter is Senior Associate Editor at Sojourners.

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