If the men who killed Emmett Till had known his body would free a people, they would have let him live. —Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr.
In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a longtime civil rights activist and secretary for her local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, inaugurated the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus. In 2005, Jesse Jackson reportedly asked Parks about this seminal moment and what motivated her to stay in her seat. “I thought of Emmett Till and I couldn’t go back,” Parks responded.
Emmett Till had been murdered three months prior. Four days before Parks stood up to Southern racism, she attended a community event at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church during which Till’s murder was described “in detail.”
Although Parks was a seasoned activist by 1955, she later remarked that “the news of Emmett’s death caused many people to participate in the cry for justice and equal rights, including myself.”
The murder of Emmett Till motivated an entire generation of Americans to confront racism and played an important role in fueling activism in the civil rights movement.
“Ours was the Emmett Till generation,” Joyce Ladner explained at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) 40th Anniversary Conference in 2000. While in college, Ladner was an active member of SNCC, working alongside leaders like Medgar Evers. She was 12 years old when Emmett Till was killed and his murderers acquitted by an all-white jury. “No other single incident had a more profound impact on so many people who came into SNCC,” she said. In fact, Till’s galvanizing effect has been established in quantitative studies. A 1966 survey conducted for Newsweek found that the Till murder left a “generational imprint” on the collective memory of African Americans and was a catalyst in motivating Black participation in civil rights.
The study found that knowledge of Till’s murder motivated African Americans to engage in a range of political activities, such as registering others to vote, boycotting racist establishments, and contributing to or becoming a member of anti-racist political organizations.
What was it about Till’s murder that had such a profound impact on young people coming of age during the 1950s and 1960s? According to Chrstine Harold and Kevin DeLuca of the University of Georgia, it was the Jet magazine photo of Emmett Till’s open casket.
The image “articulated the ineffable qualities of American racism in ways words simply could not do [and] served as a political catalyst for Black Americans in the then fledgling civil rights movement.”
Jet magazine published Till’s photographs on September 15, 1955. The issue sold out within days and compelled readers to act.
Immediately after the publication of Till’s photographs, the NAACP’s “fighting fund,” intended to support victims of racial violence, reached record levels.
Boxer and civil rights activist Muhammad Ali was around Till’s age when he saw the Jet magazine photo. “I stood on the corner with a gang of boys, looking at pictures of him in the Black newspapers and magazines,” recalled Ali in his autobiography. “I couldn’t get Emmett out of my mind.” Cleveland Sellers, who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in South Carolina in the 1960s, remembered that the Jet issue was a frequent topic of conversation among his classmates. “[W]e had rational discussions about it. . . . How do you address that [Till’s murder]? . . . [It]would be our destiny to try to find remedies to a society that would allow that to happen.”