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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Emmett Till's Murder

August 1955

"When people saw what had
happened to my son, men stood up
who had never stood up before."
—Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett's mother

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An African American teen from Chicago is visiting relatives in Mississippi when he makes a fatal mistake. By whistling at a white woman in a grocery store, Emmett Till breaks the unwritten laws of the Jim Crow South. Three days later, two white men drag him from his bed and brutally murder him. In Chicago, Till's mother makes the fateful decision to let the world see what has happened to her son, and has an open-casket funeral. Thousands witness the brutality the boy suffered, and photos are published and disseminated nationwide in Jet magazine. Despite national outrage and the testimony of eyewitnesses, Mississippi finds the two accused killers not guilty at trial. A short time later, safe from being tried twice for the same crime, the men admit their guilt and describe details of the lynching in Look magazine. Till's death and his killers' acquittal help ignite the civil rights movement.

Context

Other Events: 1955

Dwight D. Eisenhower becomes the first president to hold a press conference on TV.

Baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, whose second baseman Jackie Robinson became the first African American major league player in 1947, win their only World Series title.

Notable books include The Strange Career of Jim Crow, by C. Vann Woodward; Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin; and Black Power, by Richard Wright. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking is a best-seller.

General Motors becomes the first American company to make more than $1 billion.

Television's quiz show era begins with "The $64,000 Question." "The Lawrence Welk Show," "The Honeymooners," and "The Mickey Mouse Club" also debut.

James Dean, the youth icon who starred in "Rebel Without a Cause" and "East of Eden," dies in a car crash at age 24.

Dr. Gregory Pincus announces that the first human trials of the new birth control pill are a success.

Press

The Chicago Defender, early September 1955

Thousands at Rites for Till
More than 50,000 people appeared to mourn over the body of 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till as it lay in state in the Rayner Funeral Home at 4141 Cottage Grove, on Friday....

Rev. Isiah Roberts officiated at the service. He called the burial lynching of the boy a black mark against the U.S. and called for justice and a swift trial of the boy's slayers....

The Chicago Defender, early September 1955

What the People Say

Dear Editor...

...At the funeral of the murdered boy, the visitors and mourners should have been told that the uncle of the murdered boy, Preacher Moses Wright was just as guilty as were the white murderers. Guilty of unheard of Cowardice...

...He would have been justified in killing them both, but instead, he calmly permitted them to take his own nephew from his home even when he knew they did not represent the law or did not have a warrant...

...Negroes will come into their own, only when they have sufficient courage to fight, and if necessary, to die for respect.

Instead of praying and preaching for peace, the black races all over the world should preach FIGHT, BLOODSHED, RETRIBUTION, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, five lives for a life...

[signed]
a devoted reader

The Birmingham Post-Herald, September 19, 1955

10 Jurors Picked as Till Trial Opens
3 Veniremen Dismissed Because of Link with Fund to Defend Accused Men

...the defense and prosecution agreed on ten members of the 12-man all-white jury. Eight of them were farmers, one an insurance man and the tenth a laborer.

As the trial got underway, eight Negro reporters, most of them representing Northern newspapers, were segregated at a separate table....

..."We haven't mixed so far down here and we don't intend to," said Husky Sheriff H. C. Strider, who also searched the spectators for arms as they entered...

The prosecution did not question the [jury] prospects whether they believed in capital punishment, leading to speculation that the death penalty would not be sought for either the kidnapping or murder, both capital offenses in Mississippi....

The Washington Post, October 2, 1955

Letters to the Editor: Case of Emmett Till

...this case has served to bring into the open the very legal core of the age-old issue of the merits or demerits of states rights...

...Legal interpretations and fundamentals of the law as based on both the Constitution of the United States and that of the individual states have one common denominator, which is equal justice under law. Social patterns, local policies and individual concepts can find no justifiable circumvention of common denominator in administering the cause of justice under law and our pattern of trial by jury....

...Is the case closed under the states' rights version of law and order?...

...Even in the days of slavery, a plantation owner was forbidden to kill a "good slave." If he did not want him, he had to sell him to another master. If he killed him without cause... at least he was punished in some measure for his crime. The case of Bryant and Milam seems to reach beyond the days of slavery.

Welburn M. Franklin
Washington.

The Washington Post, October 15, 1955

Letters to the Editor: No Justice for Till

The trial in the case of Emmett Louis Till was merely a farce...

...Are you asking intelligent people to believe that a jury of white men suddenly got rid of their hate and dislike for the Negro (something they've had for years) for a few hours until the verdict was rendered and then started hating and disliking them again the instant after the verdict? Please! Let us by truthful to ourselves at least...

...justice did not prevail in the case of Emmett Louis Till.

Madgielene Hughes
Washington.

Music

City Called Heaven
Songwriter: Traditional
Performed by: Mahalia Jackson
Listen to the Music

The brutal murder of Emmett Till, age 14, by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, horrified most Americans and fueled the young activists who sparked the 1960's Civil Rights Movement. Till's mother wanted an open casket funeral "so all the world can see what they did to my boy." The sorrow song, City Called Heaven, also known as Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow, expresses the despair and sadness so many people felt not only at Till's funeral, but upon seeing the photograph of his mutilated corpse that appeared in Jet magazine, a publication widely read in the African American community.

Known as the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson was passionately involved in the Civil Rights Movement with her power of song. She sings:

I am an old pilgrim of sorrow
And I'm left in this whole wide world
I'm left in this world alone
I have no hope, but tomorrow, Lord
But I'm trying to make a heaven, Lord, My home.

Studs Turkel, the historian, author, and host of a long-running Chicago radio show, said that Mahalia Jackson "explained to me that the spiritual wasn't simply about Heaven over there, 'A City Called Heaven.' No, the city is here, on Earth. And so, as we know, slave songs were code songs. It was not a question of getting to Heaven, but rather to the free state of Canada or a safe city in the North -- liberation here on Earth!"

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

Emmett Till's Murder
Duration: 2:04 min
Watch the Video

The footage begins with "person-on-the-street" interviews soliciting people's opinions of whether the defendants in the Emmett Till murder should have been charged and/or convicted.

Next, Till's mother Mamie Till Mobley describes the trial itself and the jury's behavior.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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