Try this: Open a new window in your browser. Type “the face of civil rights” into the search box. As of this writing, first Google result you will receive is:
Touching, but is it accurate? During Black History Month–when the (sanitized-by-time) leaders of the Civil Rights movement are paraded ad nauseum–you probably think not of a tearful Chris Pine, but of proud black faces, radiating confidence, strength of character, and resilience. Something more along the lines of:
As beautiful as they are, neither Rosa Parks nor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are the true face of civil rights. That distinction belongs to fourteen year old Emmett Till.
It was the summer of 1955. While visiting family down south, Chicago native Emmett Till was accused of whistling at a white woman. For this crime, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam abducted this child from his great-uncle’s home at gunpoint at 2:30am in the morning. They took him to a woodshed, where they took turns smashing his face into an unrecognizable pulp with a .45 caliber revolver, a gun Milam–a decorated war veteran–called [the] “best weapon the Army’s got, either for shootin’ or sluggin’.” When the 14 year old boy not only refused to cry, but declared defiantly “I’m not afraid of you,” the men gouged out one of his eyes, shot him point blank in the head, tied a cotton-gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, and then tossed his corpse into the Tallahatchie River.
It took an hour for an all-male all-white jury to acquit Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of this heinous crime. One juror admitted it would have taken less time, had they not stopped to drink sodas.
Several months later, Look Magazine paid the duo $4,000 to tell their story. Devoid of remorse, they confessed to torturing and killing Emmett Till in great detail. “I’m no bully” said Milam. “I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him.”
“I’m no bully” said Milam. “I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers.
If letters to the editor were the comments section of the 1950s, you’d be unsurprised to discover that people who read this article, stating the facts as recounted by the murderers themselves, vehemently defended Bryant and Milam, while vilifying the murdered child:
“I want to cancel my subscription to your magazine at once. I will not have my home contaminated with…filthy, dishonest articles.”
Mrs. W. R. Prevost
“No race in the world has made as much progress as the Southern Negro since he was set free as a slave 90 years ago. The southern white man has contributed gladly to that advancement and will continue to do so, if social reformers who know little about our problem will let us work it out in our own way.”
Lee B. Weathers
Publisher, Shelby Daily Star
Shelby, North Carolina
“To publish this story, of which no one is proud, but which was certainly justified, smacks cloudy of circulation hunting. Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam did what had to be done, and their courage in taking the course they did is to be commended. To have followed any other course would have been unrealistic, cowardly and not in the best interest of their family or country.”
“Mr. Huie makes the blanket assessment that the majority of Mississippi white people either approve of Big Milam’s actions or else they don’t disapprove enough to risk giving their enemies the satisfaction of a conviction. By this example of opinionated, baseless reporting, Look itself pays scant recognition to the traditions of American Justice it claims were ignored by Mississippians.”
Robert E. Webb
“If the Till boy were my own son, and he were white in color (as I am) and he conducted himself by molesting a Negro woman…I would approve and understand if the Negro husband did likewise.”
Brooklyn, New York
“What I condemn is the article’s underlying current of emotion directed against the entire south, an emotion which must of its nature provoke feelings of aversion and antipathy against the innocent as well as the guilty.”
James E. Brown
New Orleans, Louisiana
People of 1950s believed themselves to be living in a post-racial nirvana. Slavery was behind them. Blacks were happy in their segregated place. The wanton murders of black people were a thing of the past, and justice was a thing to be expected of a fair jury.
And then Mamie Till-Mobley decided to have an open-casket funeral for her murdered child.
50,000 mourners viewed the body in Chicago. Tens of thousands more took to the streets in protest of the acquittal of Emmett Till’s murderers. Then President Dwight D. Eisenhower received endless sacks of handwritten letters, begging for justice, including a telegram from the bereaved mother, to which he never responded.
The published photo of Emmett Till’s remains galvanized millions who’d been neutral to racial injustice. People who felt directly unaffected and so had never raised their voices in dissent, spoke up for the first time. Mamie Till-Mobley herself said: “Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, `That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong. I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
“What happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.“–Mamie Till-Mobley
100 days after the funeral of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus in Montgomery Alabama.
If you looked away or scrolled past the infamous photo of Emmett Till because it made you uncomfortable, go back. Scroll up and take a good look; let the repulsion sink deep into your soul. Soak in the horror of what those grown men wrought upon that child; the grave injustice of it all. The unbearable discomfort experienced by those forced to look upon the horror of racism kick-started the conversation which moved a generation. This conversation will never be comfortable, but comfortable people never changed the world.
It is for this reason we must never turn a blind-eye or allow ourselves to become numb to the seemingly endless procession of bodies that fall to racial violence. Don’t allow yourself to become desensitized or fatigued. Gaze upon the true faces of the New Civil Rights Movement, and remain outraged:
Travyon Martin. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Freddy Gray. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Let your righteous indignation move you to action, and may that action become the pathway to lasting social change.
As precious as Chris Pine’s tears might be, lives matter more than feelings.
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