|RESURRECTING EMMETT TILL
The Catalyst of the Modern
Civil Rights Movement
Universityof Missouri Columbia
JOURNAL OF BLACK STUDIES, vol. 29 No.2, November 1998 179-188
Copyright 1998 Sage Publications, Inc.
In an inside jacket endorsement of my book, Emmett Till The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement, one reviewer wrote that Emmett Till was
the real catalytic event that unleashed the long inhibited Black rebellion against the viciousness and brutality of White racism. It had preceded the much heralded Montgomery Bus Boycott by one hundred days.... The lynching of Till may no longer be denied as the genesis of the chronology of the Civil Rights Movement. (Hudson-Weems, 1994)
Herein lies the process of unearthing and thereby resurrecting Till, the catalyst of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. During the Christmas holidays in December of 1985 and the following January, I commenced my doctoral research on the Till murder case.
I took a trip to the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the trials, or mockery of trials, had been held in 1955. There I purchased all the surviving papers of the proceedings, which were few in number since the court transcripts had been destroyed. I was told by the clerk that they were not required to keep them. (Hudson, 1988, p.21)
During this early stage of my research on the case, some 30 years after ~Il's brutal lynching in Money, Mississippi for whistling at a 21-year old White woman, Carolyn Bryant, his name was virtually unmentioned. Even when it was mentioned, it was never in the context of his death as the catalyst of the modern civil rights movement. Juan Williams's (1987) Eyes on the Prize immediately comes to mind here; for in spite of Till's presence in this work, his true significance as catalyst is not presented.
Although Juan Williams does not postulate that the Till incident was the catalyst for the movement in his work Eyes on the Prize, he does acknowledge that Montgomery Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama, picked up the Till story and gave it prominent display. Three months later, the black population of Montgomery began an historic boycott of their municipal bus system. (Hudson-Weems, p.57)
King (1958), too, in Stride Toward Freedom acknowledges Till, but his true significance is not established here either. He does admit that during that time, the image of Till, indeed, was pressed in the minds of the Alabamians: "Today it is Emmett Till, tomorrow, it is Martin Luther King. Then in another tomorrow it will be somebody else (p.127).
Consider also a number of other historical documentation that likewise Mrs. Till's true significance.
Consider the historical account of the Black American struggle in the fifties and the sixties as documented by the foremost black historian, John Hope Franklin. In his most recently revised edition, the 1994 seventh edition of From Slavery to Freedom, there is only one reference to the Till case, and it is not even indexed.
Consider Kenneth G. Goede's From Africa to the United States and Then: A Concise Afro-American History. Nowhere is Till mentioned in the text, not even in the chronological table of events.
Consider Peter M. Bergman's The Chronological History of the Negro in America. Here Till receives minimum coverage, as he appears in the list of three victims of lynchings occurring in Mississippi in 1955.
Consider co-authors Albert P. Blaustein and Robert L. Zangrando who wrote Civil Rights and the American Negro: A Documentary History. In the 671-page book on the African-Americans' civil rights from 1619 until 1968, only one reference is made to Emmett Till.
Consider one of the greatest black historians of the twentieth century, Benjamin Quarles and The Negro in the Making of America. Nowhere in his entire book is the Till murder case mentioned.
Consider the recently published co-authored historical account of the black American by two highly credible black historians, Mary Frances Berry and John Blassingame, Long Memory: The Black Experience in America. Again the reference to the Till murder case is limited to one sentence.
Finally, consider the interpretive historian Vincent Harding in The Other American Revolution. Till is not mentioned at all. (Hudson-Weems, 1994, pp.91-93)
It was clear, at least to me, that research on the impact of the brutal lynching of the 14-year-old Black Chicago youth on August 28, 1955 was long overdue. Why this case had not heretofore been explored was a mystery to me because his impact on society was evident. In Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement, Rayfield Mooty, the second cousin of Till by marriage, who was very instrumental in bringing this case to the forefront, decodes this mysterious neglect to accurately and fully document the case. According to him,
Historians will talk about the good and the bad, but they don't want to deal with the ugly.... The ugliness of racism is not a White man's telling a Black woman to give him her bus seat--bad as that is-- but the confident home-invasion, kidnapping and murder of a fourteen-year old Black youth and the exoneration by jury of the youth's apparent killers. (Hudson-Weems, 1994, p.75)
Indeed, Rosa Parks's demonstration was much more palatable than the bloated face of Till.
On May 14, 1988, the day I received my Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, reporter Diane Shinn (1988) asserted in the major Iowa City newspaper, The Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Three decades later, Hudson's concern is Till's rightful place in history. Little written material exists on the Till case. Much of it is inaccurate" (p. 3A). When the National Ford Foundation announced in the spring of 1986 that I would be a recipient of a national predoctoral fellowship, I contacted them to advise them that I had changed my proposed research topic from Black women writers to Till and the civil rights movement. Having first interviewed Mooty in the summer of that year, I was convinced that Till was not just a chapter, as I had earlier designated for him in my doctoral dissertation, but rather "a book" in Mooty's words. By August, the news of my research topic had reached the media. A picture story appeared in The Iowa City Press-Citizen, headlined "U I [University of Iowa] student wins $10,000 grant [per year] for lynch trial study." In interviewing relatives of the young victim and others, I made discoveries to which another newspaper article alluded: "It's been a very interesting experience.... There are truths about the Civil Rights Movement that have not yet been revealed" (Foertsch, 1986, p. 3B). Those revelations were to appear in my doctoral dissertation and later in the 1994 Till book. Indeed, my mission was to bring to full fruition the real truth about the impact of this lynching on America as a nation and its long-standing victims of racism.
In January 1987, I discussed my specific title, "Emmett Till: The Impetus for the Modern Civil Rights Movement," with my dissertation committee and was strongly advised that I present the Till case as a very significant factor in the rise of the civil rights movement. Instead, I was steadfast in my conviction to prove Till as, in fact, the catalyst of the movement and asked that the committee allow me the privilege of proving my thesis. Convinced by the testimonies I had already gathered from many acknowledging that the Till lynching was the inception of their politicalization, I committed to modifying my title, only if I was unable to prove this position. According to a book cover endorsement of Emmet Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement (Hudson-Weems, 1994) by C. Eric Lincoln, professor emeritus of Duke University, this position "challenges the most sacred shibboleths of the origins of the Civil Rights Movement" Although many cite the 1954 Brown V. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education Supreme Court Decision, establishing the unconstitutionality of segregated public schools, as its origin, most historians mark the beginning of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s with the rebellious act on December 1, 1955,of the established mother of the movement, Rosa Parks. Be that as it may, at the 1987 National Ford Foundation Annual Convention, I gave in a plenary session a documentary slide presentation on Till as the catalyst of the movement, which was audiotaped.
The audience-which included national scholars, publishers, and so on-was stunned, and many, both White and Black, came to me unsolicitedly attesting to the indelible impact that the Till lynching had on them. For example, White Chicago economist, Charlotte Kuh asserted,
What it did to us as northern liberals was it really brought home that the South was a dangerous place filled with red necks, really violent, irrational people. . . . For a lot of people, that was a central event. . . . I'm really glad that someone is doing a study on this. (Hudson-Weems, 1994, p.310)
Also, Cheryl Leggon, Black educator of Ohio, who was my contact person during my tenure as a Ford Fellow, contended, "I just remember that it was just horrifying. Although my family is from Louisiana, I never went South: I thought I would get lynched" (Hudson-Weems, 1994, p.313).
In December, 2 months later, I presented that same slide presentation at the University of Iowa with much the same reception. Jolin Blassingame, a Yale University historian and author of The Slave Community who was in the audience, came up to me following my presentation saying, "When you really think about it, Clenora, you're absolutely right. We missed it." That statement later became part of his endorsement of the dissertation-turned-book in 1994.
The following year, May 14, 1988, graduation day, the front page of The Iowa City Press-Citizen ran another picture story, this time titled, 'A Ph.D.: Murdered Child Ripped Her Heart." Shinn (1988) wrote,
It was not, she [Hudson-Weems] contends, Rosa Parks' refusal to surrender her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., that sparked the riots, boycotts and social upheaval of the 196Os.
Hudson [Hudson-Weems] has a different picture vividly in mind about the beginning of the civil rights movement. That picture is of Emmett Till in his coffin, battered and bloated.
Till's murder, she said, was too ugly. The heinousness of the crime~murdering a child and throwing his body into a river-filled blacks everywhere with rage. (p. 3A)
Strengthening her assessment of the story, I as researcher was quoted.
It was the epitome of the ugliness and hatred of racism. It made people uncomfortable, but it made people act. If you want to move a people, kill their children. I believe that Emmett Till was the straw that broke the camel's back, that his death sparked the flame. (p. 3A)
Following graduation, The University of Iowa Alumni Review commissioned me to write an article explicating the research and writing process for my dissertation, the first full documentation of the Till murder case. It appeared in the October 1988 issue, titled “The Unearthing of Emmett Till: A Compelling Process.” Since 1988, I have given nearly 50Till slide presentations across the nation at colleges, universities, and national conferences, to spread the news to those who had never heard of Till and to jar the consciousness of many others who had pushed Till into the recesses of their minds.
Many testimonies appearing in the book corroborate my thesis. For example, Joyce Ladner, noted Black sociologist of Howard University, contends,
A very important thing is that it followed the Supreme Court decision in 1954. It's like the Whites said that they don't care what rights we were given…. So when the spark came in Mississippi to sit in the public library, for example, people who participated had been incensed by the Till incident and were just waiting for the spark to come. The Till incident was the catalyst. (Hudson-Weems, 1994, pp.141-142)
Founder of the first Ph.D. program in African American Studies (Temple University) and author of The Afrocentric Idea, Molefi Asante acknowledges,
The Emmett Till Case was the most awesome event that occurred in my childhood because it revealed to me in the most profound manner how fragile I was as a Black boy in America. The impact made me aware for the first time of all that my grandfather Moses and my father, Arthur, had told me about black manhood being at risk in America. It came together with the most deafening sound of despair.My life's pilgrimage, in many respects, has been to seek liberation from the moment of Till's death. (Hudson-Weems, 1994, p.293)
Very graphically, Irene Thompson, activist and retired public school teacher of Memphis, Tennessee, attests to the impact of Till's lynching on her.
I was just coming out of college, full of dreams of freedom and awareness of life and still in the "I pledge allegiance to the flag... with liberty and justice for all" stage. All wrapped up and then flung right down in my guts. (Hudson-Weems, 1994, p.327)
Finally, attorney Alvin 0.Chambliss, Jr., lead counsel in the historic Ayers V. Fordice Supreme Court case, attributes the lynching of Till and other Blacks in Mississippi to his career decision.
Till, Charles Mack Parker (lynched in Pearl River County in Popularville, Mississippi), Verner Darner (lynched in Hattiesburg, Mississippi), and Noah-all of these lynches motivated me to being a civil rights attorney, committing me to a life-time struggle for Black people. (Hudson-Weems, 1994, pp.144-145)
In October 1994, following the release of the Till book, I organized a national forum titled "Emmett Till Day in Court, 1994: A Civil Rights Forum," which was hosted by the University of Missouri-Columbia. A picture story, headlined "Putting Till in His Place?' by Sue Richardson, appeared in The Mizzou Weekly newspaper; in which I was quoted:
The Till incident graphically portrays the ultimate ugliness of racism- its violence and victimization. It has been lastingly imprinted on the collective American consciousness, but underplayed as a stimulus for the civil rights movement. (Richardson, 1994, p.4)
Coming to endorse the thesis of the book were national scholars; authors; and civil rights attorneys, including Tony Martin, attorney Alvin Chambliss, and Mrs. Mamie Till Mobley, mother of Emmett Till. During the occasion, the Missouri Black Legislative Assembly awarded both Mamie and me with proclamations for our role in handing down the legacy of Till. Reporter Leslie Wright (1994) of The Columbia Missourian quoted one of the speakers, professor Talmadge Anderson, of Washington State University and editor-in-chief of The Western Journal of Black Studies: "The shame and horror that has been swept under the rug must be revived in order that we might bring about a second civil rights renaissance" (p. lA).
In December of that year, the state of Tennessee House of Representatives, the Memphis city council, and the mayor of the city applauded the groundbreaking book and thesis with a proclamation, a resolution and a key to the city, respectively, at a ceremony at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
In the spring of 1995, Kay Bonetti of the American Audio Prose Library, Inc. conducted a 90-minute interview with me on Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves and Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement. On Side 2 of the tape, Bonetti acknowledged Till as having profoundly affected her and White people in general.
Emmett Till's lynching was a wake-up call, not just to Black people, but to White people…. The official story of the start of the civil rights movement is this, if you will, somewhat sanitized version of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.... But in terms of the [White] people's story, there is the fact that ordinary White people everywhere were horrified by what happened, and it did something to them. It made them recognize this as something that simply can't go on. This can't happen in this day and age, and we've got to stop it. And then it was a wake-up call for all humanity. (Bonetti, 1995)
Later in the year, August 17 through August 20, 1995, the First National Conference on Civil/Human Rights of African-Americans, which I organized as national chairperson, was held in Memphis, Tennessee, commemorating the 40th year of Till's lynching. The conference theme was "From Money, Mississippi, to Union, South Carolina: The Legacy of American Oppression," a commentary on the continuing plight of Africana people. Again convening was the original Till panel, joined by more scholars, attorneys, ministers, students, activists, media guardians, and national politicians-including attorney Richard Hatcher, former mayor of Gary, Indiana; Senator Roscoe Dixon and Judge Joe Brown, both of Tennessee; State Representative Lois DeBerry, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators; Mayor Marion Berry of Washington, D.C.; and Charles Tisdale, editor-in-chief of The Jackson Advocate. They came to engage in timely dialogues on issues critical to the survival of Black people, such as affirmative action, the bell curve, contract on Black America, and new Black conservatism.
One week later, on August 27, 1995, an associated press article by Dan Sewell appeared in major newspapers across the nation, including Los Angeles Times, in which the Till case is referred to unhesitantly as the catalyst of the civil rights movement: "Emmett's name lived on, invoked by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others as they began the civil rights in earnest" (p. lA). More strongly put, I was quoted in that article as saying, “his bloated face as the ugliness of American racism staring us right in the eye. It became the catalyst for the civil rights movement. It set the stage for the Montgomery bus boycott three months later" (p. lA). The first part of this quotation appeared later in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's (1996) Black Profiles In Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement (p.206).
Indeed, from sweeping the Till case under the rug as an embarrassment to the movement- blaming the victim- to holding it up as the real catalytic force behind the movement, we at last are witnessing a public consensus of the importance of Till to the civil rights movement and to the lives of many indelibly affected by it. Recent attention on 0. J. Simpson's trial, contrasting it with the mock trial of Till some 40 years ago, and moreover on his famed attorney, Johnny Cochran, who acknowledged that Till's lynching was why he chose his life's profession, bears this out. Although the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the aborted second reconstruction, is considered a thing of the past by many today, we are witnessing the emergence of a third reconstruction through the resurrection of Till. It is my sincere hope and conjecture that a proper reassessment of the past will enable us to move more confidently into the future. Indeed, as Robert Weems, Jr., asserts in the foreword to the book, this multi-faceted study of the lynching of Emmett Louis Till comes at an important time in American history. Perhaps, this thorough and moving depiction of America's "ugly" past may sensitize enough of us to actively work toward avoiding a potentially "ugly" American future (Hudson-Weems, 1994, pp. xvii-xviii).
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Clenora Hudson- Weems, Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia and author of EmmettTill: TheSacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement (1994), AfricanaWomanism: Reclaiming Ourselves (1993), and coauthor of the US. Twayne Series titled Toni Morrison (1990), received a Ph.D. in American/African-American World Studies from the University of Iowa, an MA. in English from Atlanta University a Certificate in French Studies from L'Universite de Dijon (France), and a BA. in English from LeMoyne College. She has published numerous articles and book chapters, including "Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American literary Tradition" (Mifflin, 1997).