The Pictures That Emboldened Rosa Parks And Ignited The Civil Rights Movement

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the pictures of Emmett Tills funeral tell a very particular story: one that has to do with hatred, violence, and racism.

Emmett Till was an African-American teenager born and raised in Chicago who went to visit his relatives in Mississippi. One day, he went to buy some gum at a local store, and there he allegedly “harassed” Carolyn Bryant, a married white shopkeeper. Till was then abducted from his uncle's house, beaten to death, and found at a nearby river. He had been brutally assassinated by two white men (Bryant's husband and brother-in-law) in Mississippi in 1955, during Jim Crow. The assassins, who confessed to their crimes years later, were acquitted from charges of kidnapping and murder by an all-white jury. And then, more than fifty years later, Till’s “victim” confessed that her accusations were untrue. Emmett Till, a name that shall never be forgotten, was just a boy at the wrong place and the wrong time: a time and place of hatred and discrimination.

Photo by David Jackson for Time Magazine

For the funeral, his mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, asked to have an open casket, so people could see what racism did to her son. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the pictures of Till’s funeral, taken by David Jackson for Time, four words stand out from the rest: segregation, injustice, cruelty, and hate. His mother was aware of the importance of exhibiting the violence inflicted on her son; she wanted the world and people of all races to feel her pain. These pictures were crucial for the Civil Rights Movement because they brought home the cruelty and injustice that African-Americans faced. After seeing the images, it was impossible not to care or have an opinion regarding the situation.

Photo by David Jackson for Time Magazine

Three months after the pictures of Till's funeral were published, a young African-American woman called Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white person in Alabama, which later resulted in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. What moved her to do such an act of rebellion, Reverend Jesse Jackson told Vanity Fair in 1988, was to think about Emmett Till. That was her catalyst. Till's cousin Simeon Wright, stated in an interview for the Smithsonian that had it not been for the pictures, people would have been indifferent; people would not have felt motivated to take a stand against racism. So, in a way, Till’s death was what ignited the fight for Civil Rights.

Many years have passed, and now we can see the effectivity of the pictures, but how much do we really empathize with Till's family? Do we truly have the ability and sensitivity to let ourselves be moved the way Rosa Parks did? We are here, 60 years after these pictures brought out crucial topics for the fight for human rights, and still the question remains: have we learned anything at all?

Susan Sontag writes in Regarding The Pain Of Others, which analyzes pictures of death and violence, that people like Emmett Till, had he not been violently murdered and photographed, would have been “supremely uninterested in the living: in those who took their lives; in witnesses—and in us. Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? "We"—this "we" is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through—don't understand. We don't get it. We truly can't imagine what it was like”. No, we cannot know what it felt like to be an African-American back then, but as part of the latino community I can say that “we” could try. We all should. We must.


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