Contextualizing Emmett Till’s Murder | Facing History & Ourselves
July 1939: An African-American man drinking at a segregated drinking fountain in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Contextualizing Emmett Till’s Murder

Students explore the importance of context and learn about Emmett Till’s murder in Jim Crow-era Mississippi.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • Racism
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students analyzed “the talk” that Mamie Till-Mobley had with her son Emmett about navigating the racial norms in Mississippi. In this lesson, students will deepen their understanding of the historical context that precipitated Emmett Till’s murder by learning about the ways that white supremacy was enforced in Jim Crow-era Mississippi. By exploring this historical context, students will understand that the murder wasn’t an isolated act; it was part of a long history of racial oppression and violence enacted by white Southerners to enforce the color line in order to maintain political and economic power.

As we pursue racial justice today, what can be learned from the choices people have made in response to racial violence in the past?

How does learning about the historical context of Jim Crow-era Mississippi change or deepen our understanding of Emmett Till's murder and its significance?

  • Students will identify the different methods used to enforce white supremacy in the South during the era of Jim Crow.
  • Students will interpret the murder of Emmett Till with a historical lens by analyzing white supremacy in the decades prior to 1955.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 1 video
  • 1 image
  • 4 readings
  • 2 handouts
  • 1 map

Emmett Till, born in Chicago in 1941, visited the Mississippi Delta in August 1955, in the midst of growing Black civil rights activism and mounting white backlash to it. A few days after his arrival, Till and a group of teenagers went to purchase candy at Bryant’s Grocery. The store was owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant, and primarily served African American field laborers. Emmett went into the store to buy bubble gum and whistled at Carolyn Bryant on the way out of the store. 1 Bryant went to her car to get a gun, and the teens ran off. Three days later, Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from Mose Wright’s home at gunpoint. After Wright reported Till missing, Leflore County Sheriff George Smith questioned Bryant and Milam, who confessed to kidnapping Till but claimed they let him go once they realized he was not the right boy.

Three days after Till was kidnapped, his decomposed body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River. He had been brutally tortured and shot in the head. A 75-pound cotton gin fan had been tied around his neck to weigh the body down.

It is impossible to fully understand the meaning of Emmett Till’s murder without recognizing the political and historical context in which it happened. The murder of Emmett Till was a continuation of the violence used to enforce white supremacy and protect the color line in the decades following Emancipation and Reconstruction. In the context of a white power structure intent on keeping white people and Black people segregated and the white race “pure,” Emmett's whistle was seen as an assault that had to be countered. 

Efforts to preserve racial purity had a long history in Mississippi and found expression in the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. The first anti-miscegenation law in Mississippi was passed on the heels of the Civil War in 1865 and gave life imprisonment for any “freedman, free Negro, or mulatto to marry any white person.” In the ensuing decades, anti-miscegenation laws also prohibited intermarriage with Asians, and the sentencing was modified to ten years and/or a $500 fine. After 1942, anyone advocating intermarriage was subject to a fine of $500 and/or six months in jail. Furthermore, white purity was codified into law in 1910, when Tennessee became the first state to pass a “one-drop” statute that asserted a person with even one Black ancestor (“one drop” of “black blood”) is considered Black. Mississippi adopted its “one-drop” statute in 1917.  

For decades prior to Till’s murder, white supremacists invoked the cause of racial “purity” to justify violence against Black people in the South, most notably through public lynchings. However, by 1955, racial lynchings had significantly declined from their peak in the 1890s. 2 Nonetheless, in the 1950s, the threat of violence persisted following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954). The Brown decision struck down segregation in public schools, declaring “separate but equal” education as unconstitutional. The decision agitated segregationists and surfaced Southerners’ fears of miscegenation. This anxiety was expressed by the editor of the Jackson Daily News, Frederick Sullens, who wrote: 

Human blood may stain southern soil in many places because of this decision, but the dark red stains of that blood will be on the marble steps of the United States Supreme Court building. White and Negro children in the same schools will lead to miscegenation. It means racial strife of the bitterest sort. Mississippi cannot and will not try to abide by the decision. 3

While the Brown decision galvanized resistance from segregationists, it was celebrated by the Black community and inspired Black political activism in the South. Black leaders organized voter registration drives in an effort to establish a Black electorate that could influence local governments. These efforts threatened white political power, and white segregationists responded with violence. On May 7, 1955, George Wesley Lee, a Black minister from Belzoni, Mississippi, and the first Black person to register to vote in Humphreys County, was murdered after refusing to remove his name from the qualified voters list. No one was arrested or charged for the crime. Six months later, Lee’s colleague Gus Courts (who, with Lee, co-founded the Humphreys County chapter of the NAACP) was shot in front of the grocery store he owned. Courts survived his wounds and moved to Chicago. Nobody was charged. Then, on August 13, Lamar Smith, a Black voting rights advocate, was shot and killed in broad daylight. He was at the courthouse in Brookhaven, Mississippi, helping Black voters fill out absentee ballots when he was gunned down in front of the town sheriff. Three white men were arrested for the crime, but none were indicted. 


  • 1In the violently racist ideology of the Jim Crow South, the act of a young Black boy whistling at a white woman could be seen as a damning justification for torture and murder. His cousins Simeon Wright and Wheeler Parker, eyewitnesses to the encounter, have since confirmed that Emmett did indeed whistle.
  • 2According the Tuskegee Institute, the deadliest decade was the 1890s, when 1,111 African Americans were lynched. The following decade recorded 791 lynchings, and the 1910s recorded 502 lynchings. By the 1940s, the total number of reported lynchings of African Americans was 31. In the 1950s, the number sank to 6. According to the Equal Justice Initiative report “Lynching In America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” the decline of lynchings resulted from the increased use of capital punishment imposed by court order following an often accelerated trial with inadequate protections for the accused.
  • 3Federal Bureau of Investigation, Prosecutive Report of Investigation Concerning Emmett Till

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

In this lesson, students will read a range of sources that exemplify the efforts to enforce white supremacy during the Jim Crow era in the South. For this reason, it is crucial that students have the opportunity to process individually and together the emotions and questions this history evokes. It is especially important for you to look at students’ work and their participation in class discussions for evidence of how they are processing what they have encountered in this lesson. If necessary, follow up with individual students to offer support, or set aside additional class time for students to talk through and articulate their thoughts and feelings about this challenging history. We also recommend that you do the following:

  • Preview each resource in this lesson before you share it with your students. Let students know in advance when they are about to encounter dehumanizing content. If necessary, omit resources that you believe will be too difficult for your students to engage with.
  • Briefly review the class contract with students before beginning the lesson. This will help to reinforce the norms you have established and the idea of the classroom as a safe space for students to voice concerns, questions, or emotions that may arise.
  • See the Teaching Note 1: Teaching Emotionally Challenging Content in the “Preparing to Teach” section of this unit  section for more information.

In this lesson, students will complete an “iceberg diagram” that helps them understand the historical context of Emmett Till’s murder. They will revisit this assignment in Lesson 6, so either collect students’ diagrams or remind them to keep these in a safe place.

One of the documents in Document Set A, Racial Lynchings in the United States (1884–1954), includes a map of racial lynchings. Students can also use this interactive version of the map. Students working with Document Set A might work best in a computer lab or with appropriate technology.

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Lesson Plans


To help students think about the ways that context can change our understanding of events, it can be helpful to start with something unrelated to the topic of this unit. As a warm-up activity, use a teaching strategy called “What’s Going On in This Picture?” from the New York Times Learning Network. Project this Image of a Hippo. Ask students to think about what they see and what they notice in the photograph. Give students a moment to make silent observations. Then ask them to answer the following questions in their journals:

  • What’s happening in the photo? What makes you say this?

Next, provide some additional context for the photo. Explain that on the day this photo was taken, there was a flood in Tbilisi, Georgia (in Eastern Europe). A local zoo was affected by the flood, and dozens of animals escaped. Ask volunteers to share how the additional context changes their understanding of the photo. 

Transition into a discussion of the lesson objective by explaining to students that historical context helps us better understand events in history. Without context, we don’t get the complete picture. In today’s lesson, they will think about Emmett Till’s murder like “historians” by situating the crime within the historical context of Jim Crow-era Mississippi.


Explain to students that although Emmett Till was murdered by racist and hateful individuals, the goal in this lesson is for them to be aware of the underlying context for Till’s murder and to see that the crime was not an isolated act but part of a long history of racial oppression and violence enacted by white Southerners to enforce the color line in order to maintain power. 

Apply the Iceberg Diagrams teaching strategy for the next activity. Begin by asking students to list what they know about icebergs, or you can show them a picture of an iceberg. The main idea you want to establish is that what one sees above the water is only the tip of the iceberg; the larger foundation rests below the surface. Then ask students to draw an iceberg on a piece of paper or in their journals, making sure that there is a tip, a water line, and a larger area below the surface. Their drawings should be large enough so that students can take notes within the iceberg. Alternatively, you can distribute the Iceberg Diagram handout.


Explain to students that they will be watching a video clip from the television series 60 Minutes that tells the story of Emmett Till’s murder and includes interviews with several of Emmett’s family members, friends, and other witnesses to what happened in 1955. Then play 0:00–7:49 of the video 60 Minutes: The Murder of Emmett Till. As students watch, ask them to list the facts of Emmett Till’s murder in the “tip” area of the iceberg on their iceberg diagrams. Once the clip has finished, ask students to share what they included in the “tip of the iceberg.”

Explain to students that in the next activity, they will work in small groups of three to five students to read primary and secondary sources that will help them complete the “beneath the surface” section of the iceberg diagram and better understand the context behind Till’s murder. 

Explain that each group will read different documents and become “experts” so they can share their findings with the class. Have each group choose a spokesperson who will be prepared to share their group’s findings.

Assign a document set (A, B, C) to each group: 

Document Set A

This excerpt from an FBI investigation of the Till murder describes some of the Southern norms that were created to enforce white supremacy.

This map uses research from African American sociologist Monroe Nathan Work to pinpoint the location of the 4,000+ racial lynchings that occurred in the United States since 1848.

Document Set B

This document lists, in chronological order, the evolution of Mississippi miscegenation laws between 1865 and 1942.

This document gives students the immediate historical context of the Till murder by summarizing the segregationist reaction to the Brown decision and the emergence of White Citizens’ Councils in Mississippi.

Document Set C

This source includes quotes from delegates at the 1890 Mississippi Constitutional Convention asserting the desire to create a government to uphold white supremacy.

This graph shows the strategies that white Southern legislators used to disenfranchise African Americans during the Jim Crow era. 

Instruct groups to read each source together and reflect on how the source helps them respond to the prompt: How was white supremacy enforced in the Jim Crow-era South? (Write the prompt on the whiteboard for students to reference.) They should write their responses in the “beneath the surface” section of the iceberg diagram.

Once students have had enough time to examine their sources and complete the iceberg diagram, ask each group to share their findings with the class. As each group presents, ask students to take notes on what they learn and add it to the “beneath the surface” section of their iceberg diagram in response to the question, “How was white supremacy enforced in the Jim Crow-era South?” Students’ contributions may include:

  • Racial violence and lynchings
  • Miscegenation laws, which outlawed interracial relationships
  • Citizens’ Councils, which were formed to enforce segregation after the Brown decision that declared segregated schools illegal 
  • Laws, such as the grandfather clause, that prevented Black people from voting 
  • Norms of racial etiquette, such as the requirement that Black people address white people as “Sir” or “Ma’am” 

Then post each group’s iceberg diagram in the room and give students five minutes to view the diagrams in a gallery walk to reinforce what they heard or fill in the blanks of what they may have missed orally.

Be sure to tell students to keep their iceberg diagrams in a safe place, as they will use them again in Lesson 6. 


Close by giving students time to process what they’ve learned individually in a written reflection. This activity offers a safe exit from the emotionally challenging material in this lesson and also helps you gauge student understanding and address learning gaps in subsequent lessons. 

On a separate piece of paper, instruct students to respond to the following prompts on an exit ticket

  • Today I learned that . . .
  • This is important to my life because . . .
  • Tomorrow I hope we review ________ from today’s lesson because . . .

Ask students to turn in their exit cards. 

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