The Emmett Till Generation | Facing History & Ourselves
John Lewis at the Cairo demonstration.

The Emmett Till Generation

Student’s explore how Emmett Till’s murder inspired a generation of young African American men and women to actively join in the civil rights movement. Student materials are available in English and Spanish.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




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


About This Lesson

In this lesson, students analyze how the murder of Emmett Till galvanized a generation of young activists in the struggle for civil rights. They will read sources written by leaders of the civil rights movement who reflect on the impact that Till’s murder had on them during their adolescence. Students will build on what they learned about Mamie Till-Mobley’s choice to hold an open-casket funeral and allow the publication of her son’s photo in Jet magazine, and deepen their discussion about what made the murder of Emmett Till resonate so powerfully, by reading firsthand accounts by those who experienced this moment in history. In the next and final lesson, students will draw connections between the galvanizing effects of Till’s murder and the murder of George Floyd.

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

Why did the murder of Emmett Till galvanize a generation of activists to pursue racial justice?

Students will analyze how Emmett Till’s murder inspired a generation of young African Americans to pursue racial justice.

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

  • 2 handouts
  • 3 readings

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. 1

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. 2 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.” 3 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.” 4 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. 5 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. 6

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. 7 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.” 8 Jet magazine published Till’s photographs on September 15, 1955. The issue sold out within days and compelled readers to act. 9 Immediately after the publication of Till’s photographs, the NAACP’s “fighting fund,” intended to support victims of racial violence, reached record levels. 10 11

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.” 12

  • 1Christine Harold and Kevin Michael DeLuca, “Behold the Corpse: Violent Images and the Case of Emmett Till,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 8, no. 2: 263–86.
  • 2Devery S. Anderson, Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi), 218.
  • 3Anderson, Emmett Till, 218.
  • 4“Mamie Till-Mobley, Civil Rights Heroine, Eulogized in Chicago,” Jet 103, no. 5 (January 27, 2003): 18.
  • 5Frederick C. Harris, “It takes a Tragedy to Arouse Them: Collective Memory and Collective Action During the Civil Rights Movement,” Social Movement Studies 5, issue 1 (2006): 37–38.
  • 6The study examined the effects of several landmark moments of the civil rights movement, including the March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Brown decision, and the Scottsboro trials. The survey found that Till’s murder had the largest impact.
  • 7 Dave Tell, Remembering Emmett Till(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 131.
  • 8Harold and DeLuca, “Behold the Corpse: Violent Images and the Case of Emmett Till,” 263–86.
  • 9The image also was published in the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Amsterdam News, the American Negro, and the Crisis.
  • 10Maurice Berger, For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 108.
  • 11 In her autobiography, Mamie Till-Mobley describes an appearance she made in a Detroit church to raise money for the NAACP. “Great sums of money were collected there. I mean, when it came time for collection at this service, they didn’t pass the plate. They didn’t pass the bucket. They passed around big wastebaskets. I mean, garbage cans. And the people were filling them up. It was just amazing.”
  • 12Cleveland Sellers, oral history interview by John Dittmer in Demark, South Carolina, U.S Civil Rights History Project, 2013 .

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

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

Before teaching this lesson, we recommend that you spend time familiarizing yourself with the teaching strategy procedures for two of its activities: Save the Last Word for Me and Jigsaw. Doing so will ensure that the lesson runs smoothly with quick transitions. These strategies require students to work in groups, so we also recommend that you spend time planning for group work before teaching the lesson. Consider which students will be grouped together, where groups will work, and how you plan to communicate your expectations for group work. Teachers have also found Assigning Roles for Group Work to be an effective strategy. You know your students best. Therefore, make the preparations and adjustments you think will best facilitate a productive learning environment.

The preface of the reading John Lewis, “I Couldn’t Accept the Way Things Were” mentions the acquittal of Till’s murderers. Because the murder trial has not yet been addressed in the curriculum, the reading may prompt students to ask clarifying questions. Below is a brief description of the trial and its outcome. 

In September of 1955, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were indicted for the murder of Emmett Till. The trial was held in Sumner, Mississippi, in a segregated courtroom and lasted five days. Mose Wright, Emmett’s granduncle, and two Black sharecroppers testified against Bryant and Milam. Wright’s testimony was the first time a Black man testified to the guilt of a white man in the state of Mississippi. An all-white male jury found Bryant and Milam not guilty. Months later, Bryant and Milam sold their story to Look magazine, where they admitted to killing Till. As a result of the “double jeopardy” rule, Bryant and Milam would never be convicted of their crimes.

If you’d like to learn more, consider watching this segment of Prime with Charles Blow for a concise overview.


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Lesson Plans


Begin the lesson by sharing with students the following quote from Mamie Till-Mobley:

Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.” Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of all of us. 1

Ask students to reflect on the quote in their journals by answering the following questions:

  • What do you think Mamie Till-Mobley meant when she said that “what happens to any of us . . . had better be the business of all of us?” 
  • Have you witnessed or experienced this idea in your own life? If yes, when or where?

After students have written their reflections, ask them to share their responses with a partner. When the class is ready, elicit responses from volunteers. If you’d like students to make deeper connections between the quote and their own lives (and your schedule gives you additional flexibility), consider assigning the handout Making Connections with Till-Mobley.

  • 1Anderson, Emmett Till, 84.

In the next activity, students will explore sources highlighting the impact of Emmett Till’s murder on youth activism during the 1950s and 1960s. Using the Save the Last Word for Me strategy, students will work in small groups of three to read and analyze one of the three readings:

Pass out one reading to each group and also the handout Instructions for Save the Last Word for Me. Read the instructions as a class. Students will begin by reading their assigned reading silently to themselves and then recording one sentence that stands out to them from the reading, along with an explanation of why they chose it. Then students will break into their small groups and each take a turn reading the sentence they chose. First, the other two members of the group have the opportunity to discuss the meaning and significance of the sentence while the student who provided it listens. Then the student who read the sentence gets the opportunity to weigh in on the discussion and explain why they chose the sentence. The group then repeats the process until each member has had the opportunity to contribute a sentence for discussion. 

Finally, students will respond to the following prompt in their journals or on a separate sheet of paper: Why did the murder of Emmett Till galvanize a generation of activists to pursue racial justice? After they’ve written, each student will share their response with their group members. In the next activity, students will be responsible for summarizing their assigned text to another group of students who have not read the text.

In this Jigsaw activity, students will summarize their assigned text to another group of students who have not read it. Rearrange students into new groups of three so that each new group includes students who have all read a different text. For example, each group will include one student who read Reading 1, another student who read Reading 2, and a third student who read Reading 3.

Instruct each student to summarize his or her source for the new “teaching” group and to share their written reflection. Ask students to extend their own written reflection after their peer shares their summary and reflection.

Reconvene the class and ask students to spend five minutes discussing the following questions in their small groups:

  • How did young people (Ladner, Sellers, Lewis, and Moody) react to the murder of Emmett Till? How were their reactions similar? How were they different?
  • How do you think young people found the courage to join the civil rights protests and challenge racism? 
  • What lessons might we draw from their example as we consider how to respond to racial injustices today?

Bring the class back together and begin eliciting responses from volunteers to the questions above.

Materials and Downloads

Special Thanks

The Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley Institute and Facing History & Ourselves would like to offer a special thank you to the partners, collaborators, and student advisors who made critical contributions to this curricular unit. They include colleagues from within the Till Institute as well as the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the Alluvial Collective and students from across Mississippi.

Kobie Austin

Christopher Benson

Kenyatta Coleman

Kinsey Crowley  

Abby Jo Flowers

Vondaris Gordon

Germaine Hampton

Zykira Hooper

Jataylon Johnson

Madison Jones

Qadre Latiker

Ashura Lewis

Elliot Long

Zakarriya Love

Katilyn Mackey

Kaliyah Mayes

Dr. Marvel Parker

Colin Richardson

Matthew Richey

Jay Rushing

Hannah Shapiro

Mike Small

Bethany Stanford

Ian Underwood

Dr. Earl Watkins

Jamari Williams

Adrianequa Wilchie

Myiesha Wright

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