A few years ago when the story about Trayvon Martin’s shooting was all over the news, I came across an article on Facebook that has black and white photographs of a young boy and next to it was a disfigured face. I remember reading the description and found out that the disfigured face on the right was the photo of the young boy on the left in his casket. In disbelief, I did a research about the photograph to see if it was both of those were real and the same young boy on the left. I learned that it was real and that it happened to a fourteen year-old boy named Emmett Till.
Emmett Till was an African American from Chicago who went to the South in Mississippi to visit his relatives in August of 1955. During his stay, he went with his friends to a white-owned store. And according to his friends, he whistled at the white lady who was behind the counter. A few days later, Till was kidnapped by the lady’s husband and brother, his decomposing body and disfigured face was found three days later floating on Tallahatchie River. During his funeral, Till’s mother decided to open his casket for everyone to see the brutal murder of her son. These two photographs of Emmett Till demonstrate how horrifying and severe racism is in the United States, especially in the South (PBS)
These photographs are very significant to me because these show how evil and awful white people were in this era. Going so far as to beat up an innocent fourteen year-old boy until his face was disfigured, to shooting him in the head, and then throwing his body in the river wrapped in barbed wire and tied to a large metal (PBS). When I first realized that the photographs were actually of the same person, I was appalled by how someone can do it to a boy just because of a simple whistling. This proves how despicable and outrageous racism was in the South, and on top of that, even after admitting to the murder, the white murderers were acquitted. These photographs and story of Emmett Till particularly caught my attention as the same story still continues to occur today because of racism.
The photographs were published by JET magazine, an African American magazine, but it was Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, who ordered for the casket to be opened during his funeral services for people around the world to see the violence and cruelty that African American suffer from white people in the South (Mace). Mamie Till was worried about sending his son to the South where white violence is well known. She even warned Emmett to be careful “because of his race” (History). After hearing about the murder of her son, Mamie Till insisted to see her son’s mutilated body. Her action of revealing Emmett’s mutilated body and having the media published the photographs provoked people around the world and especially in the United State, which encouraged the Civil Rights Movement (Mamie Till Mobley Foundation).
Living in the North, Emmett Till had not really experienced actual violent racism before visiting his relatives in the South. Although he had experienced segregation in his school in the North, the South had always been very aggressive and savage towards African Americans and being a kid, Emmett wasn’t aware that even the tiniest interaction with a white person can have unforeseen results. Emmett died in August of 1955 during the Civil Rights Movement period. During this era, African Americans aimed to end the oppression and have equal constitutional rights as white people. Through different activists movements, many things were achieved such as the Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act. The Brown v. Board of Education allowed desegregation of public schools, although it took time for other states to follow, changes were actually made. Eventually, many legal rights such as voting, going to public facilities, riding the bus, entering restaurants, etc. were finally given to African Americans (Patterson). It was this time period where African Americans where able to voice their aspirations and goals of having equality and to be treated as a human being.
Emmett Till’s published photographs had become a very important piece of history as they illustrate the brutality and injustice of white people in the South. Coming across an image like this during the Civil Rights Movement period can create a big impact not just to the African American community, but also around the world. It triggered many African Americans to fight back to the oppression, segregation and racial discrimination. The photographs served as the activists’ go signal to push and to fight even harder to this cruelty and injustice. Along with the African Americans were the Northerners and people from other states and other countries who condemned and reacted to the photographs. A German newspaper even published an article titled “The Life of a Negro Isn’t Worth a Whistle” (PBS). In addition to the brutality, people were more disgusted by how the jury handled the case, acquitting the assailants. Many white people supported the two whites responsible and even the jury was white, which angered even more people because of injustice (Pool 414).
Emmett Till’s photographs significance is becoming even stronger as time passes by. To this day, many African American people are losing their lives because of racism and discrimination, especially teenagers just like Emmett. A good example of this is Trayvon Martin’s case. Martin’s case is similar to what happened to Emmett’s case. Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch simply because he looked suspicious (CNN). This outraged many citizens because even after admitting to shooting Martin, George Zimmerman was acquitted just like what happened to Emmett’s murderers. Even after decades since Emmett’s murder, we can say that injustice in our legal system will always be there as long as there is still the issue of racism. More and more African Americans will become just like Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin if we treat people based on their skin color.
The photographs serve as an evidence of white violence in the South while the story behind it represents the injustice in the legal system. Learning about the African American history through these artifacts helped me understand more about the actual events, experiences, and sufferings that African Americans faced just because of having darker skin color. From our discussions about the cruelty of slavery to the exploitation after emancipation, we can say that African American people will continue to be treated unequally if people don’t educate themselves. “Recent history shows that it (racial segregation) can be removed, and that it can be done effectively when approached intelligently” (Manning 364).
In this course, I have learned so many things about why and how things happened in the history. I learned about the truth and was able to actually piece everything together. Through these cultural artifacts, I was able to understand the African American history and the people’s continuous battle for equality.
CNN: “Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts/>.
History: “The Death of Emmett Till.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-death-of-emmett-till>.
Mace, Darryl. In Remembrance of Emmett Till: Regional Stories and Media Responses to the Black Freedom Struggle. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2014. Project MUSE. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <https://muse.jhu.edu/>.
“Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation.” Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <http://www.mamietillmobleyfoundation.org/>.
Marable, Manning, and Leith Mullings. Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African American Anthology. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. Print.
Patterson, James T. “The Civil Rights Movement: Major Events and Legacies.” The Civil Rights Movement: Major Events and Legacies. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/civil-rights-movement/essays/civil-rights-movement-major-events-and-legacies>.
PBS: “Timeline: The Murder of Emmett Till.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/timeline/timeline2.html>.
Pool, Heather. “Mourning Emmett Till.” 11.3 (2015): 414-44. Print.