Students will make informed connections between past events and issues today, as well as creatively express historical understanding through multi-media. In addition, students will critically reflect upon the role historical memory plays in promoting informed civic practice.
This is the fourth in a series of four complementary lessons that accompany the documentary film The Murder of Emmett Till. It can be used on its own, but works best when used with the other three lessons. The first lesson focuses on students confronting the murder and subsequent trial and then begins to explore people's responses at the time to the tragedy. In the second lesson, students will get a better sense of the historical context of Emmett Till's life and death as they examine the choices made by people highlighted in the film. In the third lesson, students analyze the film within an historical context of lynching and the early struggles against Jim Crow and racism. The final lesson discusses the meaning of the Emmett Till case for the modern civil rights movement and its legacy today for both Americans and the rest of the world.
The immediate setting of the film is the summer and fall of 1955, spanning the murder of teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi and the subsequent trials of his assailants. The focus of this lesson is on the legacy of this event for the Civil Rights Movement and for us today.
If the class has not yet viewed The Murder of Emmett Till, they should do this first, and then spend some time discussing their personal reactions to the documentary. Lesson One, Emmett Till: Confronting The Murder, can be helpful in this regard.
- Near the end of the movie, Mamie Till remarks that the murder and trial of her son was either the "last straw or spark" that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. She went on to say "people stood up, like many before." Ask students to respond in their journals to these comments. What in the movie tells us about this being the last straw or a new spark?
A richer appreciation of Mamie Till's remarks requires a larger historical view. If time allows, the class should do part of Lesson Three, Emmett Till: Connecting the History of Lynching to The Murder. This will allow the class to see that Mamie Till was aware that her son's murder and the outcry against it were part of a larger stream of history. Students can make their own annotated timeline as a class to graphically demonstrate the episodes that support her statement. The timeline will visually reinforce how the Till case was one moment, albeit important, of a long struggle for civil and human rights dating back to the 19th century.
One version of a timeline is on the PBS website, but students should fill free to modify it and extend it further back in history. Which events best illustrate Mamie Till's statement "people stood up, like many before?"
- Mamie Till's words were prophetic. The Civil Rights Movement began to gather steam again after the trial of Emmett Till's murderers. The class should try to view at least one of the episodes of Eyes on the Prize to this connection. The best starter is Eyes on the Prize: Awakenings (1954–1956).
- After viewing one of the episodes in the series, the class should read the following excerpt of an interview between television journalist Bill Moyers and Margot Stern Strom, the Executive Director of Facing History and Ourselves. It is taken from Reading One in Chapter Two of Choosing to Participate: A Critical Examination of Citizenship in American History. Moyers states,
- The problem of democracy is the problem of the individual citizen who takes himself or herself lightly historically, no matter how bloatedly one might take oneself personally. By that I mean if you do not believe that you can make a difference, you're not going to try to matter, and you will leave it to someone else who may or may not do what is in the best interest of your values or democracy's values.
- I find it increasingly frustrating the student who comes and says "Well I just don't believe anyone does matter, and I say "Shame on you for taking yourself so lightly historically." You have to realize how, brick by brick a nation is built, a school is built, a city is built or a society sustained."
- Unless students realize... that everything we have comes to us through the contributions over time from the past-then how is the student going to realize, "I have to help build the next school or the next church or the next library..." (Stoskopf and Strom, 1990).
How do Moyer's words relate to the film? In what sense could the Emmett Till case be seen as "one brick" in the foundation of something larger?
- Being able to see oneself historically is built first upon remembering history. This applies on both a personal and societal level. One personal memory of the Emmett Till case that is still with someone today is evidenced in the following memoir from Reginald Lindsey, a judge who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Lindsay was an African American ten-year old boy when Till was murdered. He reflected on what the case meant to him then and today:
- The mantra that was repeated to me (and I dare say to other boys my age) nearly every time I left my neighborhood, after August 1955, to go to a place where it was likely that I would encounter white people was: "Be careful how you talk to white women. You don't want to end up like Emmett Till."
Not many people had this personal memory of the Emmett Till case. Yet, it is part of the collective history of the United States and world. What would be a good way to publicly acknowledge the case? How would we choose to remember this case in a way that served to educate the public?
Students can answer these questions with their own memorial to the Emmett Till case. Creating monuments is a long standing practice for students in Facing History classrooms. It allows students to give voice to a range of their own thoughts and feelings about a difficult piece of history they have studied, such as the Holocaust or in this case, the murder of Emmett Till. For ideas on how students can go about creating a memorial, see the lesson Analyzing and Creating Memorials.
- There should be time for students to share their explanations about their monuments. Ideally, their work can be photographed with a digital camera and the images can be sent to Facing History where we can put them on our website with other examples of student work from around the world.