Mississippi Trial, 1955

Influence on civil rights

Somehow [Till's death and trial] struck a spark of indignation that ignited protests around the world... It was the murder of this 14-year-old out-of-state visitor that touched off a world-wide clamor and cast the glare of a world spotlight on Mississippi's racism.

Myrlie Evers[100]

Through the constant attention it received, Till's case became emblematic of the disparity of justice for blacks in the South. In 1955 The Chicago Defender urged its readers to react to the acquittal by voting in large numbers, a reminder that most blacks in the South had been disfranchised since the turn of the century under laws passed by white Democrat-dominated legislatures.[101] Myrlie Evers, widow of Medgar Evers, stated in 1985 that Till's case resonated so strongly because it "shook the foundations of Mississippi—both black and white, because...with the white community...it had become nationally publicized...with us as blacks...it said, even a child was not safe from racism and bigotry and death."[102] The NAACP asked Mamie Till Bradley to tour the country relating the events of her son's life, death, and the trial of his murderers. It was one of the most successful fundraising campaigns the NAACP had ever known.[103] Journalist Louis Lomax acknowledges Till's death to be the start of what he terms the "Negro revolt" and scholar Clenora Hudson-Weems characterizes Till as a "sacrificial lamb" for civil rights. NAACP operative Amzie Moore considers Till the start of the Civil Rights Movement, at the very least, in Mississippi.[104]

The 1987 14-hour Emmy award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize begins with the murder of Emmett Till. Accompanying written materials for the series, Eyes on the Prize and Voices of Freedom (for the second time period) exhaustively encompass the major figures and events of the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, Stephen Whitaker states, as a result of the attention Till's death and the trial received,

Mississippi became in the eyes of the nation the epitome of racism and the citadel of white supremacy. From this time on, the slightest racial incident anywhere in the state was spotlighted and magnified. To the Negro race throughout the South and to some extent in other parts of the country, this verdict indicated an end to the system of noblesse oblige. The faith in the white power structure waned rapidly. Negro faith in legalism declined, and the revolt officially began on December 1, 1955, with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.[26]

In Montgomery, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider, sparking a year-long well-organized grassroots boycott of the public bus system, designed to force the city to change its segregation policies. Parks later said when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, "I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn't go back."[105] According to author Clayborne Carson, Till's death and the widespread coverage of the students integrating Little Rock Central High School in 1957 were especially profound for younger blacks: "It was out of this festering discontent and an awareness of earlier isolated protests that the sit-ins of the 1960s were born."[106] After seeing pictures of Till's mutilated body, in Louisville, Kentucky, young Cassius Clay (later famed boxer Muhammad Ali) and a friend took out their frustration by vandalizing a local railyard, causing a locomotive engine to derail.[107][108] It is thought that Till's story influenced Harper Lee to create the character Tom Robinson in her novel To Kill A Mockingbird.[109]

In 1963, Sunflower County resident Fannie Lou Hamer, herself a sharecropper, was jailed and beaten for attempting to register to vote. The next year, she led a massive voter registration drive in the Delta region, and volunteers worked on Freedom Summer throughout the state. Before 1954, 265 black people were registered to vote in three Delta counties, where they were a majority; they made up 41% of the total state population. The summer Emmett Till was killed, the number of registered voters in those three counties dropped to 90. By the end of 1955, fourteen Mississippi counties had no registered black voters.[110] The Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 registered 63,000 black voters in a simplified process administered by the project; they formed their own political party because they were closed out of the Democratic Regulars in Mississippi.[111]

The story of Emmett Till is one of the most important of the last half of the 20th century. And an important element was the casket.... It is an object that allows us to tell the story, to feel the pain and understand loss. I want people to feel like I did. I want people to feel the complexity of emotions.

Lonnie Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture[112]

Till continues to be the focus of literature and memorials. A statue was unveiled in Denver in 1976 (and has since been moved to Pueblo, Colorado) featuring Till with Martin Luther King, Jr. Till was included among the forty names of people who had died in the Civil Rights Movement (listed as martyrs[113]) on the granite sculpture of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated in 1989. In 1991, a 7-mile (11 km) stretch of 71st Street in Chicago, was renamed "Emmett Till Road". Mamie Till-Mobley attended many of the dedications for the memorials, including a demonstration in Selma, Alabama on the 35th anniversary of the march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge. She later wrote in her memoirs, "I realized that Emmett had achieved the significant impact in death that he had been denied in life. Even so, I had never wanted Emmett to be a martyr. I only wanted him to be a good son. Although I realized all the great things that had been accomplished largely because of the sacrifices made by so many people, I found myself wishing that somehow we could have done it another way."[114] Till-Mobley died in 2003, the same year her memoirs were published.

James McCosh Elementary School in Chicago, where Till had been a student, was renamed the "Emmett Louis Till Math And Science Academy" in 2005.[115] The "Emmett Till Memorial Highway" was dedicated between Greenwood and Tutwiler, Mississippi, the same route his body took to the train station on its way to Chicago. It intersects with the H. C. "Clarence" Strider Memorial Highway.[116] In 2007, Tallahatchie County issued a formal apology to Till's family, reading "We the citizens of Tallahatchie County recognize that the Emmett Till case was a terrible miscarriage of justice. We state candidly and with deep regret the failure to effectively pursue justice. We wish to say to the family of Emmett Till that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved one."[117] The same year, Georgia congressman John Lewis, whose skull was fractured while being beaten during the 1965 Selma march, sponsored a bill that provides a plan for investigating and prosecuting unsolved Civil Rights era murders. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was signed into law in 2008.[118]


On July 9, 2009, a manager and three laborers at Burr Oak Cemetery were charged with digging up bodies, dumping them in a remote area, and reselling the plots. Till's grave was not disturbed, but investigators found his original glass-topped casket rusting in a dilapidated storage shed.[119] When Till was reburied in a new casket in 2005, there were plans for an Emmett Till memorial museum, where his original casket would be installed. The cemetery manager, who administered the memorial fund, pocketed donations intended for the memorial. It is unclear how much money was collected. Cemetery officials also neglected the casket, which was discolored, the interior fabric torn, and bore evidence that animals had been living in it, although its glass top was still intact. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. acquired the casket a month later. According to director Lonnie Bunch III, it is an artifact with potential to stop future visitors and make them think.[112]

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