Of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture‘s extensive collection, only one piece of history has a room all to itself. It is the original casket of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy whose murder in 1955 energized the civil rights movement. The empty casket is propped open, as it was in the days-long memorial service that showed the world the violence of racism beaten into Till’s disfigured body.

“The case of Emmett Till did a lot,” author Devery Anderson said. “He didn’t get justice, but he didn’t die in vain.”

In Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, Anderson recounts the details of the Till case, which was reopened in 2004 when Till’s body was exhumed and DNA evidence silenced lingering doubts as to the identity of the corpse. None of those complicit in his murder were convicted in 1955 or in 2007 when the second investigation closed. The repeated injustice gives the incident enduring power and relevance, Anderson said, speaking to a full auditorium at the University of the Incarnate Word on Wednesday.

“The past is never really past,” Anderson said. “We need to see what we should have learned 60 years ago and learn it today.”

The Murder of Emmett Till

The details of Till’s murder were not exceptional in the Jim Crow South, where lynching was relatively common, and rarely prosecuted, Anderson said. Mississippi led the nation in the lynching of black people, accounting for 581 of the nearly 4,000 black lynching victims from 1882-1968, according to the NAACP.

Till, visiting relatives in Money, Miss. from Chicago, violated the social contract of the Deep South, first by failing to address a white woman as “ma’am” and then by directing a “wolf whistle” at her. Three days later, the woman’s husband and several accomplices kidnapped Till, brutally beat him, shot him in the head, and sank the body in a nearby river. When the body was found by a fisherman days later, it was beyond recognition. Only a distinctive ring remained to identify Till.

The body was sent back to Till’s mother in Chicago under orders from the State of Mississippi that the casket remain sealed. Till’s mother convinced the owner of the funeral home to open the casket, and leave it open to “let the people see what they did to my boy.”

Devery Anderson wrote "Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement."
Author Devery Anderson Credit: Courtesy

People came, Anderson reports, and for days, lines stretched around the block to see what until then had been an open secret – violence against black people in the American South.

That decision, Anderson said, is what set Till’s case apart. It gained national notoriety and turned all eyes to the South, where jury of white men acquitted the defendants, who later confessed to the murder.

There was little doubt, Anderson said, according to later testimony from jurors, that they knew the men were guilty and that the body was Till’s, a fact disputed by the defense. Letters sent from across the country to the judge in the case revealed the nationwide angst that led to the acquittal. Quotes from the letters are included in Anderson’s 2015 book.  While some called for justice no matter its consequence to the “the good name of all of us Mississippians,” as one letter stated, others worried about the “slippery slope” toward racial integration.

“Convict these two white men and every n—– in Mississippi will think it is open season on white women and there will be nothing you will be able to do about it for you will have set a PRECEDENT,” another letter stated.

Slippery slope argument ultimately prevailed, Anderson said. “Mississippi was now having to defend its way of life,” Anderson said. “Its way of life was segregation.”

The criticism of segregation shifted public sympathy away from Till’s family to the defendants, Anderson writes. Jars appeared in local stores to raise money for the white men’s trial fees. They blamed the Northern media for creating much ado about nothing, sensationalizing the case. The Sheriff in the county where Till was murdered went so far as to suggest that the murder was staged by the NAACP. While the murder offended their consciences, Mississippians as a whole were more offended by the “meddling” in their affairs and denunciations of segregation, Anderson said. 

This defensive response, Anderson told the Rivard Report, is the lasting legacy of violent racism.

“We’re right in the middle of it right now,” he said.

More Guilt than We Will Tolerate

As the nation debates the removal of statues, monuments, and the renaming of institutions such as San Antonio’s Robert E. Lee High School, Anderson sees the same sensitivity to criticism, the same “brushing under the rug” of white society’s collective guilt.

“We downplay the fact that [a black person] is offended by something because we don’t want to deal with it,” Anderson said. Far from trivial, he said, the celebration of the Confederacy has done real damage to the social fabric and to minority populations who live in the shadow of the monuments.

“We forget that [in various Southern cities] black people have to drive on streets named after members of the KKK,” Anderson said. Similarly, black children go to schools named for people who fought against their right to be there.

Robert E. Lee High School. Photo by Jaime Solis.
Robert E. Lee High School is to be renamed following a vote by North East Independent School District trustees. Credit: Jaime Solis / San Antonio Report

Robert E. Lee High School opened in 1958, three years after Till’s murder, as the civil rights movement was gaining steam. A report in The Guardian tracked an increase in Confederate monuments and memorials during this time. Two major spikes in the erection of Confederate memorials stand out, one at the beginning of the 20th century as suffrage and civil rights were at the forefront of the national conversation. The second spike followed the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which integrated public schools.

“The fact that these statues and these schools were named in the ’50s seems to be clearly sending a message of, ‘We’re not backing down,’” Anderson said.

Things might not have progressed as much as we would like to believe, Anderson said. There’s a reason that young men like Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray are sometimes referred to as  “the Emmett Till[s] of our time,” Anderson said at the UIW event. While some scholars and activists hesitate to make such a comparison, most agree that the underlying cause – a lesser value placed on black lives – was the same. Repeated failure of the courts to reach a definitive homicide conviction, and reluctance to attribute racial motivation to police force demonstrate how much the Mississippi mentality is still with us, Anderson said. 

“This kind of thing has been happening for so long that we’re numb,” Anderson said. While we look back and see the obvious truth that Till’s murder was the product of racism, he said, we are reluctant to see the same systems at work in our own society.

“’Black Lives Matter’ is trying to get it drilled into us that there needs to be accountability,” Anderson said. The activists are not saying that only black lives matter, he explained. Rather, they are saying that black lives have been historically excluded from the assumption that “all lives matter.”

The Jolt of Injustice 

While the 2004 federal investigation into the Till case did not yield an indictment, it opened many new sources of insight for Anderson, who had been waiting to write the book for decades. When the federal investigation began, he began to write.

“I didn’t know how the final chapters were going to unfold,” Anderson said. “It was worth the wait.”

It took Anderson 10 years to complete his book, and many scholars consider it to be the definitive account of the Till case. “This is a piece of scholarship that is remarkable,” said Roger Barnes, UIW professor of sociology and criminal justice. “Books like this just don’t come around all the time.”

UIW invited Anderson based on his scholarship, Barnes said, long before San Antonio engaged in a debate over Confederate monuments. While it was a coincidence, it was far from surprising. Racial tension is ubiquitous enough that there would likely be a local connection in any U.S. city in which Anderson spoke.

This is why Till’s legacy does not end with the last chapter of the book, as comprehensive as it might be. “Justice was the goal. We didn’t get it,” Anderson said. “But as a result of that, it retains its power.”

It was this power of injustice in 1955 that fueled the civil rights movement, Anderson said.

Shortly after Till’s death, activist T.R.M. Howard spoke to an overflowing crowd at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. The church’s young pastor was Martin Luther King Jr. In the audience was Rosa Parks, who, four days later, refused to give up her seat to a white person on a local bus.

Then, 49 years later, the 2004 investigation raised questions about other crimes ignored by the 20th century justice system.

Following the exhumation and investigation from 2004-2007, President George W. Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act. Reauthorized under President Barack Obama, the bill allocates $10 million per year to investigate unsolved murders of the Civil Rights era. 

Each of those investigations, as well as each new tragedy, may give society “a jolt,” Anderson said. The pattern until now, he said, is that following each jolt, the guilt is too much to bear, and society soothes itself back to complacency. That, Anderson said, is what must change.

“We need to stop falling back asleep.”

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.