Students will better understand the relationship between the history of lynching and the murder of Emmett Till, as well as understand how the early anti-lynching movement laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement. In addition, students will explore the role the media played in both perpetuating images and ideas of dehumanization, as well as exposing human rights abuses in this history.
This is the third 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 this third lesson students analyze the film within an historical context of lynching and the early struggles against Jim Crow and racism.
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. This lesson focuses on the historical context of lynching beginning in the years after the Civil War through the time period of the Emmett Till case.
The central resource is the documentary film, The Murder of Emmett Till, which is approximately 54 minutes in length. It can be purchased directly from PBS or borrowed from the Facing History Lending Library.
- This "History of Lynching" site is excerpted from Tolnay's book cited below and contains statistics and background information on the history of lynching.
- The Library of Congress provides several links to background on the life of Ida B. Wells and her article, "Lynch Law in Georgia" (1899), exposing the myths and realities of lynching.
- The Kansas Humanities Council has produced a biographical website of Ida B. Wells, which includes links to some of her major pamphlets.
- Allen, James. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twin Palms, 2000.
- Tolnay, Stewart. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
- Zangrando, Robert. The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
If the class has not viewed the film, they should do this first and then spend some time discussing their personal reactions to the documentary. See Lesson One, Emmett Till: Confronting The Murder for ideas on how to process the film with students.
- Another way to explore the issues in the film is to step back and put Emmett Till's murder into a larger historical context. In Lesson Two, Emmett Till: Examining the Choices Made, the perpetrators of the crime discussed how they saw Till's actions as a direct threat to their sense of pride and self. It was important that Till "stay in his place." This thinking was not new and emerged in its most violent expression after the Civil War in the form of lynching.
At the end of the 19th century, the passionate voice of African American journalist Ida B. Wells emerged in protest against these violent lynchings. Wells wrote stirring articles in the black and white press exposing the crime of lynching against African Americans. In one article, she cited the excuses given for lynching and eerily foreshadowed the murder of Emmett Till:
Boys of fourteen years have been lynched by white representatives of American civilization. In fact, for all kinds of offenses--and, for no offenses--from murders to misdemeanors, men and women are put to death without judge or jury; so that, although the political excuse was no longer necessary, the wholesale murder of human beings went on just the same. A new name was given to the killings and a new excuse was invented for so doing. Again the aid of the "unwritten law" is invoked, and again it comes to the rescue. During the last ten years a new statute has been added to the "unwritten law." This statute proclaims that for certain crimes or alleged crimes no negro shall be allowed a trial; that no white woman shall be compelled to charge an assault under oath or to submit any such charge to the investigation of a court of law.
The result is that many men have been put to death whose innocence was afterward established; and to-day, under this reign of the "unwritten law," no colored man, no matter what his reputation, is safe from lynching if a white woman, no matter what her standing or motive, cares to charge him with insult or assault. It is considered a sufficient excuse and reasonable justification to put a prisoner to death under this "unwritten law" for the frequently repeated charge that these lynching horrors are necessary to prevent crimes against women.
The resources associated with this lesson support Ida B. Well's statements. Each provides some basic background information for students on certain statistics of lynching and how the violent practice evolved as a means of social control over African Americans. As students will see from these sources, numbers vary on how many people were lynched (mostly African American males). After reading the documents, ask students to write down some of the similarities and differences they notice about the conditions for lynching in the late 19th and early 20th century compared to what was portrayed in the film. These responses can be posted on the board and used as a bridge to the next part of the activity.
Note: You might want to make sure students understand some key differences between the two eras if they did not mention them in their postings. They include the following points:
- A. By Emmett Till's time, actual lynching of African Americans had greatly diminished, but terror at the threat of being murdered for violating codes of acceptable behavior still remained.
- B. There was a much stronger reaction in the mainstream Northern press to brutality against African Americans in the early 1950s than in the late 19th century.
- C. More African Americans were educated and involved in the nascent Civil Rights movement by the early 1950s, helping to chip away at segregationist policies in federal courts and also putting pressure on the federal government to make changes in discriminatory practices.
In the film and in Lesson Two, Emmett Till: Examining the Choices People Made students heard and read some statements in the Southern press that rationalized the murder of Emmett Till and shifted the attention to "trouble makers" from outside of Mississippi. The Crime Library site contains headlines and excerpts of articles that justify or excuse lynching. Students should read the document and add to the chart of similarities and differences begun in step 2.
As with the movie, images of brutality abounded in the history of lynching. From the excerpts in the previous link you get a sense that those who performed and witnessed these crimes enjoyed their actions. Students can view in graphic detail images and testimony from lynching in the powerful book, Without Sanctuary (Allen, James. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twin Palms, 2000).
- It is important to remember that time is needed to process viewing these images. Students might be asked to compare their reactions to Without Sanctuary with The Murder of Emmett Till. How does a confrontation with the history and images of lynching affect the way they make meaning of the Emmett Till case? There could be an option of doing a Big Paper exercise at this point, which allows students to silently reflect and read their own and other students' reactions to powerful subject matter.
As mentioned above, an important resistance campaign emerged to combat these horrific atrocities. Known as the anti-lynching movement, it represented one of the first chapters in the long history of the American Civil Rights Movement. Ida B. Wells was a key figure in this movement, and her campaign to expose the truth behind lynching and develop a multiracial coalition of activists foreshadowed the modern Civil Rights movement, which was just beginning after the trial of Emmett Till.
If there is time, it is highly recommended that students view the documentary on Wells' life. Short of that, the websites outlined above provide some background on her life alongside excerpts from her newspaper articles exploding the myths of rape, which was often used as an excuse to lynch African American males.
Based upon these readings and the documentary, what features stand out in the character of Ida B. Wells? What risks did she take when writing her articles and forming an anti-lynching coalition? How did she use the media to convey her message? What limitations were there to the press of the era? Student discussion of these questions should be recorded in some way, either as notes on paper or archived minutes in a document on a computer. They can be used if students go to lesson four in this series.
Students can do investigative projects on some of the early Civil Rights figures and organizations begun in the time of Ida B. Wells and relevant to the Emmett Till case. Topics could include: the NACCP, Thurgood Marshall, and Walter White. Lesson four extends the theme of resistance from this lesson into the emergence of the Civil Rights movement and the meaning of the Emmett Till case for our lives today.