This lesson is the first in a series of four complementary activities that accompany the documentary film The Murder of Emmett Till. They provide a vehicle for discussing this powerful film while also establishing important historical context to better understand its place within American history and for our understanding of the fragility of democracy. Ideally, it should be used with the other three lessons in the series, but it also can be used on its own.
Students will confront and process emotionally difficult visual images and subject matter, and also analyze multiple perspectives of a major international historical event. In addition, students will develop a fundamental understanding of the significance of this event within the historical context of the time period. This first lesson introduces students to the film and explores their personal reactions, as well as contemporary responses to the brutal murder of a fourteen-year old African American boy in 1955.
The setting of the film and lesson is the summer and fall of 1955. Early on the morning of August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, a 14 year-old African American teenager, was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Mississippi. The crime sent shockwaves throughout the nation and the rest of the world. His death came at a time of heightened racial tension in the American South following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court the previous year. The trial and acquittal of the accused murderers galvanized the nascent Civil Rights Movement and forever changed American society.
Facing History resources are used extensively in all four lessons. The lessons can be used online with students if there is access to computers or teachers can simply download information from the links and photocopy them for students.
Additional Video Resources:
The award winning series, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement, is an excellent documentary supplement to the film and lesson. Episode 1, "Awakenings (1954-56)" is particularly relevant to the activities in the lesson, and includes sections on the murder, trial, and civil rights actions that followed the crime.
The following books can provide important background to the murder and trial of Emmett Till:
- Metress, Christopher, editor. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 2002.
- Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor And Black in the Rural South. New York: Dell Publishers, 1968.
- Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1988.
First watch the film. Ask students to use their journal both during and after the film to write down their personal responses to anything they see or hear that has an impact on them. Because the film depicts a brutal murder, it is important to allow the classroom time to process the emotional impact the film has on students. There are many ways to help students pause and reflect about how images and scenes depicting violations of human rights or killing of people personally affect them. One such technique used by some teachers is called Big Paper. It honors silence, reflection, and the thoughtful sharing of responses to these situations. Click on the link to learn more about this powerful teaching strategy.
- After students have had a chance to hear each other's responses to the film, they can begin to examine the responses of Americans at the time of the murder and trial. How did white and African American citizens in the United States respond to the murder? How did these responses vary between the South and rest of the country? And, how could such an act occur in the world's largest democracy? The PBS website for the film has a collection of written reactions, mostly in the form of letters written to the FBI or newspapers in 1955. Students can read through them and record their own thoughts about what they are reading. These were the voices the filmmakers selected. What others would they have wanted to hear?
- Once students have read these reactions, they can compare them to their own. What accounts for the similarities or differences? Issues such as distance from the event, subsequent changes in American democracy, ‘race,' and class might arise. What comments did students find the most troubling? How do they compare them to what was seen and heard in the film? We do not know how representative this sample is of people's thinking at the time, but the comments can serve as a spring board to go deeper into understanding the state of race relations in the United States in the late 40s and early 1950s.
- As we read and listen to responses to the Emmett Till case, it is easy to lose sight of who he was as a person before his death. What profile of him do we get from the film? Brainstorm what students remember about him from the film and put key facts and traits up on the board. To get more details about his life, students can read more from the PBS website. How does knowing more about Emmett Till as a person change our view of how we think about the murder and trial? Visit the PBS website for more background on the life of Emmett Till.
As a final exercise in this lesson, students could create an identity chart for Emmett Till. Click here for examples of how this can be done with students. They then could create their own identity chart and discuss as a class some of the similarities and differences with Emmett Till's chart. While students might point to age, gender, class, ‘race,' and geography, there is also the issue of historical context. To understand more fully the life of Emmett Till and the country he lived in during the early 1950s, students will need to investigate more.