Jessica Johnson: Looking back on the death, legacy and cultural impact of Emmett Till

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Cedric Joe, who plays Emmett Till, and Adrienne Warren, who stars as Mamie Till, will participate in a Dec. 15 virtual screening and panel discussion of the upcoming ABC historical drama "Women of the Movement," hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum.
Cedric Joe, who plays Emmett Till, and Adrienne Warren, who stars as Mamie Till, will participate in a Dec. 15 virtual screening and panel discussion of the upcoming ABC historical drama "Women of the Movement," hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum.

Every time I’ve driven through Mississippi, I’ve always thought about the harrowing story of Emmett Till’s August 1955 murder in the small Delta community of Money, a town that was still dependent on cotton farming in the 1950s and was bent on keeping Blacks segregated and subjugated as the nation slowly inched towards the civil rights movement.

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that mandated public school desegregation was barely a year old and President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 that ended segregation in the military had been in effect for seven years, but many white Mississippians in Money were obstinately determined to hold on to what they considered their sacred way of life, which for them meant keeping the races separate and severely unequal.

When Till came down from Chicago that fateful 1955 summer with his cousin Wheeler Parker to visit Moses Wright, Till’s great uncle and Parker’s grandfather, Till had no idea that he would be viewed as a threat to that way of life simply by wolf-whistling at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant during a routine grocery store run. Caroline’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam kidnapped Till from Wright’s home and savagely tortured Till before throwing his mutilated body in the Tallahatchie River.

Two current series on ABC, “Let the World See” and “Women of the Movement,” are providing a more detailed look into not only Till’s murder but also the life of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.

“Let the World See” is a docuseries featuring Till’s cousins and prominent public figures such as former First Lady Michelle Obama and Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson.

“Women of the Movement” is a docudrama starring Adrienne Warren as Till-Mobley and Cedric Joe as the 14-year-old Till. I watched the first two episodes of “Let the World See” and one of my initial thoughts was what younger viewers who are just learning about the tragedy of Till’s killing are thinking.

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I begin both of my Ohio State Lima pop culture classes on television sitcom history and Black sports history in the Jim Crow era, and it is difficult for my students to even imagine a time when racism and prejudice in America was so ubiquitous and deadly.

The barbaric manner in which Till was slain is always a traumatic revelation of the deep racial loathing that has been embedded in the South. It was even hard for me to fathom the depths of such maliciousness when my mother told me about Till’s death in the late 1980s when I was a student at Clarke Central.

My mother was a rising junior at Athens High and Industrial School the summer Till was murdered, and from her remembrance of how the Black community in Athens reacted to the news, I quickly realized how Till represented the worst fears for African American men of her generation.

That frightful realization was solidified in my conscience when I first saw the famous Jet Magazine photo of Till’s open-casket funeral in Chicago with his mother weeping uncontrollably.

The most poignant parts of the “Let the World See” episodes that I watched were the recollections of Till’s cousins as they shared the burden of grief their family has carried for over six decades. Till’s cousin Parker, who is a minister, described the early Sunday morning Bryant and Milam came to Wright’s house as “dark as a thousand midnights.”

Demanding to talk to “the fat boy from Chicago,” Bryant and Milam passed over Parker and another cousin named Simeon before identifying Till. The solemn pause that Parker gave as he retold this horrific story again displayed the inner pain of still wondering what was going through Till’s mind as he was taken from his family.

Jessica A. Johnson
Jessica A. Johnson

However, as the years have gone by since Till’s slaying, I truly believe that Parker has found solace for his anguish through his work in ministry. He did not mention this in “Let the World See,” but the fact that he could share what he suffered without speaking of hatred for Bryant and Milam is a strong testimony of God’s grace in his life, that grace through Christ that is sufficient when the soul is wounded in distress.

I also think this is why Parker provided this powerful, reflective statement: “Laws make you behave better, but they don’t legislate the heart.” Till’s murder is viewed as a critical turning point for the civil rights movement and the laws that ensued after it, but the real fight against racism has always been the fight against hardened hearts, the ongoing battle we must continually strive to win.

This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: "Let the World See" and "Women of the Movement" on Emmett Till's death

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