I mentioned on Monday that I was going to be historic today. And I had planned to do something in relation to Martin Luther King. Originally I was thinking about doing it on the Freedom Rides, but as I was editing my capstone as I get it ready for publication (hopefully someone thinks it’s smart enough!) I came across a reference I made to the case of Emmett Till, and noted to myself that I needed to provide a footnote with a description of the event.
Well, talking to my husband a while back (I think Till was a clue on Jeopardy or something), I realized once again that this boy and the affects his death had on African-American civil rights isn’t all that well known. So, given that, my personal interest in African-American history in the early 20th century, and the fact that I honestly don’t know much more interesting facts about MLK as most people (I’m a social historian, so I tend to ignore major public figures in favor of general society), I decided I would tell you all a little about Till.
First enjoy how adorable is he in that hat, he’s so dapper.
Ok, not get ready to become angry/depressed/disappointment in humanity.
In 1955, Emmett Till (14 years old) left Chicago to visit Mississippi with his uncle and cousin. Now, growing up in Chicago, to middle class parents (his father was a WWII veteran) in an all black community, he was not prepared for the unwritten law of Jim Crow. Knowing this his mother was hesitant to allow him to visit the south. Several days after arriving, he and his cousins went to a grocery, where Emmett is said to have whistled to the clerk when they walked out of the store.
The clerk was the white wife of the shop keeper. The shop keeper and his posy went to Till’s uncles house and demanded that they hand him over (I can’t remember, but I don’t think he was home, here is a good website about the event I found though). When the lynch mob got a hold of Till, they beat him, shot him, and then ditched him in a river – hoping the alligators would destroy the evidence.
When Till’s body was found he was unrecognizable (identified by his belongings). His mother, making a public statement about the immoral act, held his funeral with an open casket – forcing that people acknowledge the extent of Jim Crow cruelty and garnering global recognition of race relations within the U.S.
Now, I could go one for a while about how his case created a new emotional investment in the civil rights movement, how it’s global recognition affected the decolonization and rise of independence of African nations, and the moral questions it asked in a post war society; but instead I will just leave you with all of these ideas.
Emmett Till’s murder emphasizes the extreme prejudice of Jim Crow society and acts as a marker for a turn in the civil rights movement; the national emotional reaction to his death began the shift from a bureaucratic movement to one of action and catalyzed the social movement general society recognizes as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s (though it started in the 1940s).