He was a fourteen year old black boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1954 when two white men lynched him to death for whistling at a white woman. That in itself, sadly, wasn’t so unusual. Thousands of African Americans were lynched to death during the first half of the 20th century. What was different about this particular lynching was his mother’s response.
Till’s mother demanded her son’s body be returned to Chicago instead of getting a quick burial in Mississippi. She then insisted upon an open-casket funeral so the world could see what they had done to her boy. The black press covered the funeral as upwards of 50,000 mourners passed by the coffin. Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender newspaper published photos of his body, mutilated almost beyond recognition. Afterwards, mainstream (white) national publications also ran the pictures and covered the story in depth, and Emmett Till entered the larger white consciousness as a martyr of racial violence.
Needless to say, there have been countless black (and Latinx and Indigenous and Asian) victims of racial violence in America over the last four centuries. How many black people have been killed or maimed by whites for, essentially, being black? The number is impossible to know. As an American historian, I suspect that tens of thousands would be an underestimate. When considering the ravages of slavery and decades of subsequent lynch violence, the number could easily be in the hundreds of thousands.
Yet prior to Emmett Till, almost none of them ever entered white consciousness as martyrs. Till became the first, the token black, the only one from among the countless thousands who most white people ever learned about in school or could cite by name. Slavery and Jim Crow repression wrought horrible violence was no secret. But upon whom, specifically?
In the 1960s, Till was joined in this sad canon only by Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers (briefly), and Malcolm X (but only to a minority of whites). However, with the death of King in 1968, white consciousness considered the civil rights era over, largely went into hiding on the issue of race, and stopped acknowledging new black martyrs of white racial violence.