CHICAGO – As thousands of protests against the deaths of black men, women and children have broken out across the country in recent weeks, many black demonstrators and faith leaders have invoked the name of Emmett Till to suggest the nation could be in the midst of a defining moment that could inspire societal shifts.
They say the degree of outrage, national mobilization and international attention spurred by the horrific, visceral recordings of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd could have a similar catalyzing effect as Till’s lynching, which shocked the world’s conscience and gave birth to a generation of civil rights activists.
“These two tragedies showed the tipping point of society,” said Benjamin Saulsberry, museum director at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Mississippi, and a native of West Tallahatchie County, of Till’s and Floyd’s deaths. “The Emmett Till murder was not the first murder. There were so many others. But it was the tipping point.”
Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago resident, was lynched in August 1955 while visiting family in Money, Mississippi. After whistling at a white woman, Till was kidnapped by several white men, who tortured and killed him. His body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River, with a 74-pound cotton gin fan barb-wired to his neck.
Two men were later acquitted on murder charges, and a grand jury refused to indict them on kidnapping charges. Years later, the white woman involved in the incident said she had been lying when she claimed Till had touched her.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, forced the world to take a hard look at racism in the U.S. when she decided to hold a public, open casket viewing in Chicago. Over the course of four days, tens of thousands of men, women and children waited in line to view Till’s body. Till-Mobley also gave permission to the black press to photograph her son’s mutilated remains and circulate the images in black newspapers and magazines.
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“Because his mother had the divine strength to choose to have an open casket viewing, it forced America to see, for the first time, what American racism actually looked like,” Saulsberry said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson would later call Till’s murder the “big bang” of the Civil Rights Movement. Mississippi civil rights leader, Amzie Moore, called Till the catalyst for the movement. Rosa Parks said Till was on her mind the day she wouldn’t give up her seat on that Montgomery bus. His death spurred protests in big cities, as well as around the world, and drove a generation of black Americans to launch sit-ins to end Jim Crow segregation. It sparked a nine-year battle for the Civil Rights Act.
This isn’t the first time Till’s name – part of a long lineage of black Americans dying at the hands of police and vigilantes – has been invoked during periods of uprisings in the U.S. It was heard on the streets of Los Angeles in 1992, when demonstrators protested the acquittal of four police officers accused of beating Rodney King. And in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, when residents took to the streets to protest the fatal shooting of Michael Brown at the hands of a white cop.
And in recent weeks, protesters marching against the deaths of Arbery, Taylor and Floyd have chanted Till’s name. Arbery, 25, was chased down and fatally shot by three white men while jogging near his Georgia home in February. Taylor, 26, was fatally shot by police in March after they entered her Louisville apartment as part of an alleged narcotics investigation. Floyd, 46, died in Minneapolis on Memorial Day when he was pinned to the ground by officers after being accused of passing a fake $20 bill at a grocery store.
“George Floyd dying on TV with a knee on his neck was our Emmett Till moment where we see the brutality and the lack of humanity that we can literally not ignore any longer,” John Gray, pastor of Relentless Church in Greenville, South Carolina, said to parishioners earlier this week.
Others have made a similar link. In Vanity Fair, W. Ralph Eubanks, author of “Ever is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past,” wrote: “There is a long bright line that connects Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision to let the world see her son’s battered body in the casket – images of which Jet magazine published – to the videos of police brutality we have been seeing on our screens, like the one of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd.”
In a live-streamed service Sunday in Atlanta, the Rev. Raphael Warnock put Till’s photo on the screen and spoke his name after listing many of the black men and women at the center of police brutality protests. At a press conference in Minneapolis Tuesday, attorney Ben Crump – one of the lawyers representing the families of Arbery, Taylor and Floyd – listed off the names of 20 African Americas who died in encounters with police and vigilantes and called on viewers to “take a breath for Emmett Till.”
Crump’s list of names does not begin to account for the number of black lives lost to white violence. More than 4,000 people were the victims of racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative – a Montgomery-based nonprofit that advocates for racial justice – which defines terror lynchings as “horrific acts of violence whose perpetrators were never held accountable.” And more lives have been lost in “modern-day lynchings” since that time.
The deaths of Till and Floyd, in particular, have been “points of clarity” in a much longer storyline, said Amy Yeboah, assistant professor of Africana studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“This has been a 400-year connect-the-dot picture. Instances have all connected in some form or fashion in helping us understand the hurt and pain of black people,” Yeboah said.
Both moments have been marked by the circulation of horrific images of death, said Brandon Marcell Erby, who studies the rhetorical work of Till-Mobley and recently earned a Ph.D. in English and African American and Diaspora Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Erby said he sees a parallel in Till’s open casket and photos of Till’s body with the video evidence documenting the deaths of Arbery and Floyd.
“Now, with the videos, we see the exhibited corpse,” Erby said.
Keith Beauchamp, whose documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” helped inspire the Justice Department to reopen the Till case in 2004, said he could bring himself to watch the video of Floyd’s final moments only once. The ubiquitous images of black death, replaying again and again on Facebook and Twitter, have caused him racial fatigue.
“I’ve seen death time and time again with the work I do,” Beauchamp said. “But nothing has ever hit me harder than the image of George Floyd. When I saw that image, it brought me back to when I first saw the photograph of Emmett Till at the age of 10. And it was something that I could not really wrap my head around. And I had the same reaction when I saw the officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.”
Beauchamp said seeing Till’s photo drove him to pursue a life of civil rights work, and he wasn’t the only one.
Many of the founding members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who led the sit-in movement, were young people around Till’s age who were spurred to get involved in civil rights work following his murder, said Davis Houck, co-author of “Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press” and founder of the Emmett Till Archive at Florida State University.
Speaking in 1986 to Joseph Sinsheimer, a Duke University student who recorded oral histories of the Mississippi civil rights movement, activist and SNCC member Joyce Ladner said Till’s lynching left a “lasting impression” on her and peers in the “Emmett Till generation.” The photo of Till’s “grotesque body” was “emblazoned in everybody’s mind,” Ladner said.
“For many people now, it’s going to be that image of George Floyd being on the ground, suffocating. That’s going to be their inspiration to continue the work,” Beauchamp said. “When we see the face of George Floyd, it doesn’t take us far from the death of Emmett Till. You can never disconnect that.”
Beyond the symbolism of both moments, there are parallels in the historical context of each period, said Christopher Benson, a journalist, lawyer and co-author with Till-Mobley on her book “Death of Innocence.” When Till boarded the train to Mississippi, he was headed to the Jim Crow-era South in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education II, when the Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” In the weeks before his murder, two black men were lynched in Mississippi.
“The death of Emmett Till was a reaction to a fear among white people in the South to change that resulted from the legal struggle for equality,” Benson said. “And now we have a fear of change once again – the new demographic change on the horizon,” Benson said, referencing the growing percentage of non-white people living in the U.S.
Opinion: Floyd and Arbery killings are modern-day lynchings
The role of national media attention in each case is similar, Benson said. Reporters documented Till’s murder, open casket and trial (which Till-Mobley called a “farce”) in what then-West Point Daily Times Leader reporter David Halberstam would later call the first “major media event of the civil rights era.” Major news outlets have now, similarly, offered “wall-to-wall” coverage of the recent high-profile deaths, protests and legal developments, Benson said. Several networks broadcast the first of many memorial services for Floyd in Minneapolis on Thursday.
But there are also marked differences in the two moments, historians say. We’re living through a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected communities of color, and people are simultaneously fearful of gathering in large groups but also “fed up” with structural racism, now laid bare by the outbreak, Saulsberry said.
There are more black elected officials in office. There’s greater diversity in police forces. But those forces aren’t just armed with clubs and dogs – they’re in full military gear, Yeboah said.
Developments in technology have given rise to social media campaigns and the Black Lives Matter Movement while raising questions about who surveils and controls images of black bodies.
“Miss Till gives permission for us to see her son,” Yeboah said. “The Floyd family doesn’t have the power these days to give permission. Anyone who was in that space took their own footage and shared it.”
Some historians argue it’s too early to speculate about the long-term consequences of the current moment.
“This is perhaps our Emmett Till moment,” Beauchamp said. “And I only say perhaps because we’re in the first phase of action – having the ability to protest. Now, after we’ve protested, what are the next moves?”
Sixty-five years later, Till’s family is still waiting for justice. The Department of Justice is investigating his case. And anti-lynching legislation in Till’s name, which passed the House in February, has stalled in Congress.
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But there’s reason for hope. The current nationwide momentum feels “much bigger” and more pervasive than the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and more akin to the movements of the 50s and 60s, Beauchamp said.
“This is the time – the defining moment of our lives,” Beauchamp said. “And this will set a precedent for where we’ll be in the next 100 years. I don’t think we get too many chances.”
Yeboah said she’s hopeful that this will be a watershed moment for racial justice in the U.S.
“In my gut this feels different,” Yeboah said. “It’s a different generation, a different language, a different terrain. The technology is different. The people are different. It’s a different time, so we may get a different answer.”
Contributing: Nathaniel Cary and Lily Altavena, USA TODAY NETWORK