On the 28th of August, 2020, thousands of Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, speaking about racial equality, criminal justice reform, and the renewed struggle for civil rights. The date is one of great significance in the civil rights movement. 57 years prior, Americans had gathered at the same location to hear Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” address; 8 years prior to that, in 1955, one of the key events of the civil rights movement took place in Mississippi. On the 28th of August, 1955, the 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered.
It was during the summer of 1955 that Chicago teenager Emmett Till travelled to the Deep South of the United States to visit family members. On the 24th of August, in the town of Money, Mississippi, Till went into a local store to buy some candy. After walking out the door, Till reportedly wolf-whistled. In the words of his cousin, Wheeler Parker (as quoted by the Guardian), this was a major breach of social conventions: “He did whistle. He whistled outside the store. He gave the wolf whistle. Man, we could have all fainted. In Mississippi, in 1955! We knew he’d violated southern mores, that in their eyes he’d committed a great crime.” Carolyn Bryant, who was tending the store that day, told a much different story, one that would ultimately see Till lynched.
According to Bryant, Till had not just wolf-whistled, but he had also harassed her and made lewd advances while inside the store. Based on these claims, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother abducted Emmett from his uncle’s home. They brutally beat and tortured the 14-year-old boy, before executing him and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River – tied with barbed wire to a 32kg cotton-gin fan. At a trial, the two men were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury after just over an hour of deliberation; they never saw punishment for their actions. In fact, they earned between $3000 and $4000 for telling their story to Look magazine. According to historian Timothy Tyson, Carolyn Bryant later recanted her claims in a 2008 interview. Justice for Emmett Till has never been achieved.
The killing of Emmett Till attracted widespread attention. Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, highlighting to Americans the brutality of what had occurred. The acquittal of Till’s murderers – as well as their later admission that they had abducted and murdered Till – played a major role in sparking the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks later told Till’s mother that she had been guided by the image of Till’s brutalised body when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama – thus sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, another major event in the history of the civil rights movement.
The legacy of Emmett Till’s murder continues to exert influence today. His name was one of many invoked by protestors during the March on Washington. Martin Luther King III referred to Till and the “American nightmare of racist violence” in his speech, placing the modern civil rights struggle in historical context. King said, “Sixty-five years later (after Till’s murder), we still struggle for justice — demilitarizing the police, dismantling mass incarceration, and declaring as determinately as we can that Black lives matter.”
Since Till’s murder in 1955, the list of those killed or maimed due to white supremacy – and the systems which have emerged from it – has only grown. The latest series of protests in the United States may have been sparked by the shooting of George Blake Jr., and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), but the demands are the same. America’s civil rights struggle continues.
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