How Emmett Till's death paved the way for Black Lives Matter, 65 years later (2022)

Keisha Rowe|Mississippi Clarion Ledger

How Emmett Till's death paved the way for Black Lives Matter, 65 years later (1)

How Emmett Till's death paved the way for Black Lives Matter, 65 years later (2)

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JACKSON, Mississippi – Three months have passed since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a former police officer kneeledon his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Since video of the incident was widely circulated on social media, protesters have taken to the streets, demanding not only justice for Floyd, but change from both local and national government agencies to address racial inequality that has repeatedly come to the forefront.

Images and videos from marches and rallies that continue across the country have drawn parallels to the days following another high-profile death: Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was killed in the Mississippi Delta in 1955.

Aug. 28 marks the 65th anniversary of Till's killing, which took place near Money, Mississippi. The brutality of Till's killing, displayed to the world through a collection of images from his open-casket funeral service in Chicago, sparked a wave of outrage and galvanized what would eventually become the civil rights movement and leave its mark on American history.

More: Thousands gather for anniversary March on Washington

Today, the events that came afterTill's killing serve as a blueprint for a new movement that has stretched across the nation and beyond, inspiring a new generation to take action.

But the past hasn't passed. Till's case remains open and no one has faced charges since his killers were acquitted by an all-white jury after just over an hour of deliberation. While people take to the streets demanding justice for Floyd and others who have become victims in the modern era, some members of Till's family are standing up and demanding justice and closure for him as well.

The history of the Emmett Till case

According to court testimony, Till was killed after allegedly making advances toward Carolyn Bryant Donham, who is white, while he visited the grocery store belonging to her then-husband, Roy Bryant. Donham testified he grabbed her hand and waist, and made suggestive remarks after asking her out on a date, though the account was later deemed inadmissible. Witnesses at the store that day said Till did whistle at Donham, but didn't touch her.

Days after the incident,Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Till from his great-uncle's home and he was severely beaten and lynched before being shot. His body was then dumped in the Tallahatchie River, weighed down by a 70-pound fan, and recovered several days later.

The images that moved a generation

Till's case drew international attention in 1955, not onlybecause both men charged with his murder were acquitted by an all-white jury, but because of the actions taken by his family in the wake of his death.

Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, famously had an open-casket funeral for her son in Chicago after telling the funeral director to "let the people see what I've seen". Manyfiled past Till's casket during the memorial, but imagery from the service, taken by David Jackson, spread like wildfire when it was published in Jet magazine,and later, several other Black publications.

David Tell, a professor at the University of Kansas, author of "Remembering Emmett Till" and co-director of the Emmett Till Memory Project, said the graphicimages of Till's beaten bodygave the public an undeniable view of what racism in the segregatedAmericanSouth looked like.

"That photograph played a major role in transforming the Till murder from one more 1955 Mississippi lynching that no one has ever heard of ... into the national phenomenon that it was," he said in an email.

Tell said the photo set the stage for the Till generation: a group of young Black men and women, including the late Rep. John Lewis, the Ladner sisters, and other iconic figures in the civil rights movement, who flooded Mississippi in the 1960s demanding action.

"When John Lewis recently claimed (in his posthumous NYT editorial) that 'Emmett Till was his George Floyd', he was talking about seeing the David Jackson photograph," Tell said."He saw it at age 14 and it changed the course of his life."

(Story continues after gallery.)

A similar phenomenon happened in the wake of Floyd's death when video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neckwent viral on social media. Public outcry led to protestsaround the nation andoverseas, with marcherscalling attention to social inequalities based on race and demanding measures be taken to correct them— calls that continue to date.

Devery S. Anderson, author of "Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement," said momentum had been building for years following the death of Trayvon Martin, but Floyd's death struck a painful chord with people around the country.

"We've been seeing things happen for the last several years, but this one here just sparked a movement, and that's what the Till case did," he said. "There had been outrage over Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and all these other cases. ...that built up to what finally happened with what we see with the George Floyd case. It's unlike anything I've seen."

How Emmett Till's death paved the way for Black Lives Matter, 65 years later (3)

How Emmett Till's death paved the way for Black Lives Matter, 65 years later (4)

Devery Anderson shares five myths about the Emmett Till case

Devery Anderson is the author of "Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement." He shares five enduring myths about the Till case.


Deborah Watts, a Till family member andco-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, said there are definite parallels between the images that galvanized the Till generation and the video of Floyd's death.

"The biggest parallel, I think, there is that we witnessed George Floyd losinghis life," she said. "With Emmett, we saw the results of it. [Mamie] showed what hate looked like. But with George's, we actually could see."

Till served as the 'proto-history' for Black Lives Matter

Though the Black Lives Matter organization was foundedin 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman and has had a presence throughout several other high-profile cases involving Black Americans like Brown, Sandra Bland and Walter Scott,it has regained notoriety this year as a national movement following Floyd's death.

Tell said Till's murder served as the "proto-history" of the BLM movement.

"From Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown forward, every police killing we associate with BLM has put Emmett Till back in the news," he said. "BLM has put racial injustice front and center, and the Till story has become one of the primary ways people make sense of such injustice."

Tell, who is also a co-creator for the Emmett Till Memory Project app, said downloads for the app increased fourfold in the weeks after Floyd's death, showing people look to Till's case in order to understand more about how racial inequalities have impacted Black Americans during the course of history.

Since advocates such as actors Taye Diggs, Danny Glover and Aunjanue Ellis have begun promoting the ETLF to bring awareness of the case to anew generation, their social media has grown exponentially. Watts said their followers on Twitter have grown from 3,400 to over 40,000 and they hope to see more people come to them to learn about the case and find out how to help.

A new call for justice for Emmett Till

The ETLFlaunched a new petition in July calling for government agencies to publicize any progress in the investigation and bring charges againstDonham, the last known surviving accomplice.

"We're trying to appeal to from the top levelof our government down to the local authorities to push forward this 65-year-old murder case," Watts said.

The petition appeals toMississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and District Attorney of the 4th Circuit Court W. Dewayne Richardson, as well as U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the Department of Justice and the FBI.

Watts said similar petitions have been launched by outside parties in the past that called for more information or judicial movement in the case, but this is the first time a member of the Till family has led one themselves.

"It's always been something that others have taken on for us and I believe there has been some wonderful results and responsesto it," she said. "We just have not put our energy or put our face into it or stood there and said 'This is our family. We've been waiting and we deserve answers and we deserve justice.' And so we wanted to be part of that push as well."

The petition was originally meant to launch earlier in the year, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the plan on hold. Watts said the ETLF focused on other aspects of its Justice for Emmett Till campaignuntil they were able to finally launch the petition on Emmett's birthday, July 25. At time of writing, the petition had over 3,900 signatures.

Watts said she has requestedmeetings with both Attorney General Fitch and AD Richardson to discuss the case, but has not yet heard back.

The Attorney General's Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Possibility of charges looks small

Seeing charges come down in the case may be difficult. In 2007, a bi-racial federal grand jury issued a "no bill" in a case against Donham seekingmanslaughter charges, meaning the jury at that time found insufficient evidence of the allegedcrime. Federal authorities also declined to press charges in 2006, saying the statute of limitations had run out.

Anderson said he isn't sure the current amount of evidence will allow any charges to come to fruition.

"Between what they knew before, unless they have more evidence for a manslaughter charge, I don't know that they could make anything stick, to be honest," he said. "I just don't see where the evidence is that would get them to indict."

Donham, now 86, is also legally blind and in a wheelchair, adding to the difficulty of seeing possible charges because a jury may sympathize with the state of her health, Anderson said.

"I do think that if there's someone alive who participated in this, no matter how old they are or anything, I think they should be brought to justice," he said. "But I really don't think the evidence is going to be there."

Watts said, however, the ETLF is looking for more than just charges being filed in the case.

"We want to hear from Carolyn Bryant," she said. "That's justice, as well. And then we also feel strongly that ... we need an apology to our family from the top levels of our government down to the municipalities there in Mississippi. There'sso many things we can point to that went wrong. So we want the wrongs righted. We want the appropriate apologies.We want them to join up with us to make sure this doesn't happen again to any other family."

Separate from the petition, Watts said the foundationis alsopursuing the creation of policies tied to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 that can empower the families of victims of raciallymotivated crimes dating back to the civil rights era.

"With this new administration, we want to remind them that this is under their watch," she said. "The cold cases and the 120 or so other families deserve the truth and they deserve justice."

Watts said Mississippi has long wanted to move toward reconciliation with the Till family regarding the case, but she said she finds the concept difficult to imagine unless the case comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

"It's impossible, I think, for any of us in our family to even talk about that until justice prevails."

Contact Keisha Rowe at, on Twitter or at (601) 961-7101.

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