The most memorable Black history lesson I ever received was an introduction to the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi after a white woman lied that he had threatened and grabbed her. Emmett was from Chicago and just visiting family in the South. I learned his story as a student in the Chicago-based Target H.O.P.E. enrichment program for students of color. At the time, the founder framed Emmett’s death on Aug. 28, 1955 and his mother’s decision to have an open casket at his funeral as the impetus for the civil rights movement. There was something about seeing this child’s disfigured body.
Alan Spears, senior director of cultural resources of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in advocating for a park in Emmett and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s honor that Emmett’s death helped inspire civil rights activist Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat for a white bus passenger, launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott on Dec. 1, 1965. “She was angry about the treatment that Black people had been receiving in Montgomery by the city’s bus drivers, but she was also angry about Emmett Till’s death and the acquittal of his murderers,” Spears said. “That boy’s death was a catalyst to the modern Civil Rights Movement in this country.”
It is with both immeasurable sadness and hope that I have to report it took some 67 years after Emmett’s death for a president to sign a bill into law making lynching a federal hate crime. President Joe Biden did so on Tuesday with the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
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“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone, not everyone belongs in America, not everyone is created equal,” Biden said during a Rose Garden signing ceremony at the White House.
He said 4,400 Black people were lynched between 1877 and 1950.
“Terror, to systematically undermine hard, hard fought civil rights. Terror, not just in the dark of the night, but in broad daylight. Innocent men, women and children hung by nooses from trees,” the president said. “Bodies burned and drowned and castrated. Their crimes? Trying to vote, trying to go to school, to try and own a business or preach the gospel.”
An all-white jury acquitted Emmett's accused killers, half-brothers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, of murdering the child after testimony from Roy’s wife Carolyn was included in the court record. Vanity Fair profiled author Timothy Tyson's effort to track Carolyn down years after her testimony. She reportedly was working at a store Emmett visited for bubble gum when he is said to have whistled at Carolyn. One of the defense attorneys on the case told the court that while Carolyn was unable to utter the “unprintable” word Emmett had used, “he said [he had]’” done something “with white women before.”
“I was just scared to death,” Carolyn offered the court.
Carolyn, who now uses the last name Donham, told Tyson at the age of 72 years old that she made up the most salacious part of her testimony. "That part’s not true,” she said of "verbal and physical advances" she earlier claimed that Emmett made on her.
Emmett's family has been advocating for officials to reopen the investigation into Emmett's death and prosecute Donham, who is in her 80s. “Time is not on our side," Emmett's cousin Deborah Watts said during a protest at the Mississippi Capitol earlier this month.
Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of noted Black journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, said during the recent Rose Garden ceremony that her great grandmother "carefully chronicled names, date, locations and excuses used to justify lynchings."
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"She wrote articles and pamphlets and gave speeches about the atrocities," Duster said. “And it was personal to her because three of her enterprising friends—Thomas Moss, Will Stewart, and Calvin McDowell who co-owned a grocery store in Memphis—were lynched in 1892. She new these upstanding men, who were leaders in the community. They were guilty of no crime.”
Ida B. Wells “upset the status quo” that lynching was being used to terrorize Black communities and maintain a “social and economic hierarchy based on race,” and for that she was threatened, exiled from the South, and her printing press was destroyed, Duster said.
In response to the lynching of postmaster Frazier Baker in 1897 in Lake City, South Carolina, Wells visited President William McKinley to urge him to make lynching a federal crime. There had since been more than 200 attempts to get such legislation passed.
When lawmakers had their first opportunity to do so in 1900, the bill didn’t make it out of the Judiciary Committee. Southern legislators blocked another effort in 1918. U.S. Rep. Leonidas Dyer of Missouri had introduced the Dyer Bill that year, and it made it through the House on Jan. 26, 1922, the NAACP reported. But after the bill was passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, a similar fate in the full Senate was blocked by a filibuster launched by Southern lawmakers.
Moorfield Storey, the first president of the NAACP, wrote to Sen. William Boroh on June 5, 1922:
It is a disgrace to this country for the Senate to say that not only that this bill is bad, but that the power to pass a good bill does not exist. This is practically saying to the colored People of the United States, "You can be murdered, burned and robbed with absolute impunity and this country which uses you as soldiers and taxes you as citizens cannot help you". Are you prepared to say this?
In his letter, Storey also made a demand of the senator:
For Heaven's sake, do not tell the negroes that their case is hopeless, that this great country cannot protect them from absolute wanton murder with the connivance and with the assistance of the officers appointed by law to defend them, and with absolute indifference on the part of the United States.
Seventeen years ago, legislators issued Duster’s brother, Dan, an apology for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation, she said. Duster attributed the eventual passing of the legislation in part to Vice President Kamala Harris, who Duster said was instrumental in the bill as a senator.
At the ceremonial signing, Harris called lynching “a stain on the history of our nation” that “was not considered a crime by the federal government” but was very much so chronicled by the Black press. "I'm going off script for a moment about the importance of the Black press," Harris said, "and the importance of making sure that we have the storytellers always in our community who we will support to tell the truth when no one else is willing to tell it."
Emmett's mutilated body was shown in a Jet magazine photo in 1955 and distributed to other Black magazines and newspapers. Mamie Till-Mobley had allowed a Jet photographer to take the photos before Emmett’s funeral. "Let the people see what they did to my boy," she said after viewing her child’s body.
Mamie Till-Mobley didn’t live to see a president sign federal legislation making lynching illegal. She died on Jan. 6, 2003 of a heart ailment at 81 years old, The Washington Post reported.
Warning: This video contains disturbing footage and accounts of the killing of Emmett Till.