What the Data Say: Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement

Earlier this year, after 120 years of trying to get an anti-lynching bill passed, civil rights warriors succeeded, and Congress passed such a bill, which President Biden signed. Then more recently, President Biden outdid himself. His latest act is symbolic but a big deal, nevertheless.

Last week, on Emmett Till’s birthday, July 25, President Biden signed a proclamation establishing a national monument honoring Till. Emmett, who lived with his mother in Chicago, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, in the summer of 1955 when he was abducted, tortured, and lynched at the age of 14, allegedly for whistling at a White woman, Carolyn Bryant, in her family’s grocery store.

At the trial of his murderers, Carolyn Bryant also testified that in addition to whistling at her, Emmett had come behind the counter, pursuing her and saying other sexually taunting things. In 2015, Bryant, who died earlier this year, sixty years later, confessed to a Duke University professor that she had lied about the event and that Emmett did not deserve to die.

The monument is named the “Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Monument,” rightfully so because what Till’s mother, Mamie, did at her son’s funeral in Chicago sparked a civil rights movement. She insisted on an open casket for viewing, contrary to practice when the deceased person’s face is distorted (by the beatings and torture) beyond recognition. But as she indicated then, she wanted the world to see what these savage racists had done to her son.

Emmett was lynched on August 28, and I was in Mississippi at the time, spending the summer with my aunt and my first cousins. We were in the Ocean Springs/Biloxi area, which was rigidly segregated but substantially less oppressive and violent than it was in the Mississippi Black Belt.

As I recall, Emmett’s lynching was considered terrible; however, it was not considered that special as it was just one more of the violent and deadly attacks on Blacks by Whites, usually with impunity. However, when Jet magazine published the grotesque picture of Emmett on its cover, Black America got sick and angry.

Other important events have been offered as the beginning of the post-World War II Civil Rights Movement. Some say it was when Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. Others point to President Truman’s integration of the military in 1948. Many claim it was when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and started the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, I side with those who say it was the lynching of Emmett Till that sparked the civil rights movement, causing many Blacks to declare that something had to be done about this racism and violence.

After the Jet magazine cover, another important event occurred the following September at the trial of Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milan. Moses Wright, Emmett Till’s great uncle, did the unthinkable and accused Bryant and Milam of taking Emmett from his home on the night he was lynched.

Moses Wright stood in the courtroom, pointed to Roy Bryant, and said, “Dar he!” indicating the man who dragged Emmett away that night. This may be the first time in Mississippi’s history a Black man testified against White men and lived. Despite all this, the jury acquitted the killers, who later admitted to Look magazine that they had killed Emmett Till.

And in December of 1955, Rosa Parks had recently attended a civil rights workshop at the Highlander School that the great Septima Clark had led. As she left the workshop, Parks would not promise Septima that she would do anything she had learned in Montgomery “because White people there are so mean.” However, 100 days after Till’s murder, when the bus driver asked her to give up her seat to a White passenger, she thought of Emmett Till and could not do it. She stayed seated.

Mamie Till’s actions turned out as she intended. The Jet magazine cover made the world more aware of the persistence of racial violence against Blacks who resolved to do something about it. Thus, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. Then later, the student sit-in movement.

“Emmett Till” was an important thread in the civil rights movement. For example, the 1963 March on Washington was held on August 28, the anniversary of Emmett’s murder.