The Body Of Emmett Till 100 Photos TIME




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I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me and if the death of my son can mean something to the other unfortunate people all over the world, then for him to have died a hero would mean more to me than for him just to have died. Emmett Till, 14, was kidnapped and killed allegedly for wolf-whistling at the wife of accused, Roy Bryant. It's not just that they discover his body and that he's been killed, he has been brutally, brutally beaten. As a criminal defense attorney, when we look at crimes we often try to put together a picture about what happened and it takes a lot of hatred and a lot of rage to do the kind of violence that was done to Emmett Till. Being a Black boy in the American South could be quite perilous. The allegation that Emmett Till was being social with a white woman was considered an affront a threat to the racial order. And I think the shock of his death was compounded by the brutality of his death. Emmett's mother couldn't actually conform to the conventions of the time and she did something really quite remarkable. She made the really unorthodox choice of having a funeral with an open casket that was going to be very widely publicized, that was going to be attended by the national press. She wanted Civil Rights leaders and political leaders to see what they did to her child. She invited David Jackson and Jet magazine to take pictures of this child's battered body and these images were widely circulating. Jet Magazine was a publication that was primarily produced and distributed to the African-American community that had been trying to educate the rest of the country about the horrors of segregation and racial violence and lynching in the American South. The images were really, really challenging. It was the kind of visual that you didn't typically see. You certainly didn't see it outside of a war zone and you certainly didn't see it with children. His face was grotesque. You could see eyes which you couldn't really distinguish all of his facial features. That's how much violence he had been subjected to. Emmett's mother's presence in the photo is really important because she's really giving witness to victimization and violence. The other images that Emmett's mother provided just created this notion of a very respectable young boy who was trying to make the very best impression on everyone he met. The juxtaposition of a little boy in a suit and a tie, with his battered face, was a stark image that made it really impossible for anyone who saw it to be silent about it. Mainstream publications like "Look" and "Life" began talking about this issue. [It] became an issue that elected officials were being questioned about. These images made it impossible for white families in other parts of the country to stay indifferent, to stay neutral. Newscaster: Never has this quiet, little cotton growing community of Mississippi seen so much publicity and so much excitement as in the past few days. Nearly 200 of the town's 5 or 600 residents have packed into the courthouse to hear the day's proceedings. Man: Do you have any evidence bearing on this case? Mrs. Till: I do know that this is my son. Man: How long do you expect to be here? Mrs. Till: Until the trial is over. Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were acquitted by this jury. And subsequently, even though they admitted taking the boy from the house, they were freed of kidnap charges. The inability to hold anyone accountable for his murder and comfort with which the men who killed him were able to talk about the violence was just adding to the injury. They weren't just killing a boy. They were expressing something rooted in this decades of animosity and fear and anger. A boy, a fourteen-year-old boy, was killed. Brutally. And one of our objectives here is to see to it that that boy, in the picture you see there, does not die an inconspicuous death, and that his case will be remembered, and something will be done about it! These images became powerful forces in organizing the new level of commitment and resistance. The brutal murder of Emmett Till really pushed Rosa Parks to a deeper level of activism. That was one of the motivating forces behind her choice to not give up her seat on that bus. And in many ways it was an organizing and galvanizing moment for the civil rights movement in this country. These shootings of unarmed black boys and men have been going on for decades It is a manifestation of this same presumption of dangerousness that killed Emmett Till, that killed thousands of people of color during the lynching era. Imagery and photography is a really important tool. Without the imagery, there would be no one who's prepared to believe some of the violence that we've witnessed. Mrs. Till: It's such a gratifying feeling to see you all sitting by and standing by because I realized shortly after this thing happened that it wasn't a fight that I could do. That it was going to be a fight that we had to do, that the people would do for me more or less and... [audience clapping] We've never made progress in this country around important social justice issues until we've given marginal victims a face. That image still has resonance. It still has power. I think it still expresses the pain and anguish of a huge part of our population that is still hoping for basic recognition of their humanity. Mrs. Till: And I want you all to stand by me because it's going to be a fight and if you will stand by me I will stand by you because I am not afraid. [audience clapping]