The Silenced Body Behind the Civil Rights Movement Yvette Cano Phoenix College Abstract Emmett Till was a young boy when his life was brutally taken away from him

January 24, 2019 Critical Thinking

The Silenced Body Behind the Civil Rights Movement
Yvette Cano
Phoenix College
Emmett Till was a young boy when his life was brutally taken away from him. His only crime was being black in America. Mamie Till-Mobley made sure that his death would not be in vain and let the world know of the struggles and horrors black Americans faced in the Jim Crow age. Emmett Till’s life served as one of the most gruesome stories in modern day history that would ignite a powerful chain of events that would come to be known as the civil rights movement. It was one photograph of a boy left so disfigured he was left completely unrecognizable that opened the eyes of Americans everywhere to the struggles and inhumanities African Americans lived through each day. People could no longer lay their heads in ignorance to the injustices that even children were now exposed to. This is the life and world of Emmett Till that changed history.
Keywords: race, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, Emmett Till, civil rights movement
The Silenced Body Behind the Civil Rights Movement
Before we were faced with the turmoil caused by the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, before the uprising of Black Lives Matter, before the brutality inflicted on Rodney King, there was Emmett Till. This young black boy from Chicago was born in an age where the nation’s laws were not in his favor. The phrase “separate, but equal” was used to justify the separation of people of color and white communities, but they were never equal. Jim Crow laws governed the nation and caused hardship for black people and a lot of injustices went unpunished because they were viewed less than human, less than worthy. This is the story of Emmett Till’s short life and death that turned him into a martyr in a nation clouded by an unjust system for black communities. His death would come to define one of the greatest movements in modern day history, this is Emmett Till.
A Life with Jim Crow Laws.
It was the year 1941 on the 25th day of July when Mamie Till-Mobley gave birth to a baby boy (Beauchamp, 2005). Despite not having a father in the picture, Emmett lived a happy and tranquil life that was full of promise (Beauchamp, 2005). Beauchamp (2005) documented accounts from his friends and family speaking on Till’s character and attributes, many described him as kind and intelligent even though he could be a bit mischievous. All these testimonies proved him to be a relatively normal child, but the world around him was much different. Emmett Till was restricted to a life of isolation and struggle because of his complexion and was not allowed access to public spaces, water fountains, and even had designated section of seats in buses. (Beauchamp, 2005). Everything seemed to be heading towards a direction of true equality when the supreme court ruled in favor of Brown v. Board of Education (1945) that outlawed legal segregation in schools, but the events that transpired the following year proved that the path towards equality was not yet promised.
The Lynching.
During the summer of August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett was set to accompany his great-uncle, Moses Wright, and his cousin, Wheeler Parker, to a small town in Mississippi unaware that this would be that last trip he would ever take (Beauchamp, 2005; Vinikas, 2004). Having grown up in the north, Emmett Till was unprepared for the political and racial atmosphere invading the south and though segregation was everywhere, Mississippi and others like it were driven by harsher discrimination towards people of color than any other place in America (Butler, 2010; Kaplan, 2018; Vinikas, 2004). The first few days after their arrival went smoothly and Emmett had the chance to spend time with his family as they worked the cotton fields to earn some change (Beauchamp, 2005). On the day of August 24th, the group decided to head into town to get some drinks and things would soon take a turn for the worst when they stepped into Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market (Beauchamp, 2005). Young Emmett ignorant to the oppression of African Americans in the south stepped into the store and allegedly exchanged harassing words with the white, 21-year-old, store clerk, Carolyn Bryant (Kaplan, 2018; Vinkas, 2004) It is still unknown what was truthfully exchanged between the two during their time alone inside, but once Till exited the store, Mrs. Bryant followed, and that was when, in a moment of unfamiliarity of the south, Emmett whistled at her (Beauchamp, 2005). This small action left the group in fear for their safety and Emmett’s as well, but still Emmett didn’t comprehend the magnitude of his actions that would eventually take his life. (Beauchamp, 2005; Kaplan, 2018; Vinikas, 2004) That was the last they heard of it until the early morning of August 28th at approximately 2:30 am when two men, who would later be identified as Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, came knocking at the home of Moses Wright armed and ready to take the boy from Chicago (Kaplan, 2018). They made their way into the home and identified Emmett from the rest of his family before forcibly removing him (Beauchamp, 2005; Kaplan, 2018). All his family could do was wait for his return because the law was not on their side, but that would be the last time they ever saw young Emmett Till alive (Butler, 2010). It wasn’t until a few days later that his body was discovered at the Tallahatchie river and Emmett was left so disfigured and mutilated that he could only be identified by a ring his mother had given him (Beauchamp 2005; Kaplan, 2018) The tragic and horrific end to his life wasn’t the matter of his actions, but the pigment of his skin and those men could not let that violation go unpunished.
The Rights of Emmett Till.
Mamie Till-Mobley then did something so unorthodox, she chose not to stay silent. She wanted the world to know what had been done to her son and all it took was one gruesome photograph to ignite a fire and uproar in many across the nation (Vinikas, 2004). Emmett Till’s murderers were charged, but all it took was sixty-seven minutes for them to acquitted of their crimes, regardless of the witness and evidence piled up against them (Metress, 2003). This proved yet again how the legal system would continue to fail black communities (Butler, 2010). But this time was different, this time the world could not hide behind the ignorance because it was placed on the map for the world to see what had been done to this young black boy (Kaplan, 2018). The response to the injustice brought onto a 14-year-old boy could not be stopped and a new generation of civil rights leaders began to form amid the chaos (Debnam, 2018). This led to the refusal of Rosa Parks in that Montgomery city bus, it paved a way for a black minister, and it catapulted the civil rights movement into what we know of it today (Houck, 2005). Emmett Till’s death would not be in vain and his mother made sure of that.
A Martyr for All.
The civil rights movement and the America we know today would not have been possible without the people that died for it. Every one of these people lived and gave their lives for something, even if they weren’t aware of it. A nation could no longer lay ignorant to the struggles of black Americans because of the decision of one mother to display her son for the world to see. What started off as a whistle turned into a gruesome murder of an innocent child, but his death would live on forever as he ignited a path for equality amongst all people. There’s still more to go, but we would not be here without people like Emmett Till, Mamie Till-Mobley, Rosa Parks, and many others.
Brown v. Board of Educ., 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
Beauchamp, K. A., Till Freedom Come Productions., ; Thinkfilm (Firm). (2005). The untold story of Emmett Louis Till. New York, N.Y.: Thinkfilm..
Butler, P. (2010). One Hundred Years of Race and Crime. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 100(3), pp. 1043-1059. Retrieved from
Debnam, J. (2018). The Blood of Emmett Till. Journal of Southern History, 84(2), 511+. Retrieved from;sid=UHIC;xid=d9fa175c
Houck, D. W. (2005). From Money to Montgomery: Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, and the Freedom Movement, 1955-2005. Rhetoric ; Public Affairs 8(2), 175-176. Michigan State University Press. Retrieved September 18, 2018, from Project MUSE database.
Kaplan, R. (2018). Emmett Till murder. In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience. Retrieved from
Metress, C. (2003). “No Justice, No Peace”: the figure of Emmett Till in African American literature. MELUS, 28(1), 87+. Retrieved from;sid=BIC;xid=d5b5f2d8
Vinikas, V. (2004). The Lynching of Emmett Till: a Documentary Narrative. Journal of Southern History, 70(2), 473+. Retrieved from;sid=WHIC;xid=d496d602