Students will better understand the social context that surrounded the murder and trial of Emmett Till, as well as analyze the relationship between choices made by people depicted in the film and their place in the society of that time. In addition, students will morally reflect about the actions of perpetrators, bystanders, and those who risked their lives during this event.
This is the second 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.
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. In this lesson the context is deepened and widened to look more closely at individual lives and American society.
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. The Facing History online exhibit, Choosing to Participate has supplemental background information on Jim Crow policies and conditions in the 1950s.
Additional Video Resources:
- Schreker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
- Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Fawcet Columbine.
If the class has not viewed The Murder of Emmett Till, 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.
What was life like for Emmett Till growing up? What was life like for other African American teenagers in the North and South? These questions are explored in the PBS website for the film. Students can read about people who remember coming of age during this time period in Chicago and Mississippi, the two central locations depicted in the film. As students read about life in the 1950s, they can take notes on the similarities and differences between African American youth in Chicago and Mississippi.
This could be an opportunity for students to make identity charts. Identity Charts are used frequently in Facing History classrooms as a way for students to make concrete and visual the different influences that shape their life or someone else's. Ask students to make a chart for Emmett Till up until his death. Based upon the information they read on the PBS website, they can do one for African American teenagers in general who were growing up at the same time as Till in Chicago. The charts can be done on paper and hung on the wall or on computers.
Once the charts are completed students can compare and discuss what they created. Issues of racism and poverty would have been brought to attention, along with the more entertaining aspects of popular culture at the time, such as rock and roll and dress styles. And yet is there is another layer students can bring into their understanding of the background to the murder and trial of Emmett Till? What was going on in the larger society? The following websites discuss the impact the Cold War had on domestic American society and what has become known as the "McCarthy Era." This is important background information in understanding frequent references made by many white Southerners to "outside, communist agitators stirring up trouble."
These two sites give a basic grounding in the generalized fear of dissident views prevalent in the era:
If there is time, the class can add some of the new information to a third intersecting identity chart. All the background viewed on the film and retrieved from the websites suggest how embedded Emmett Till was in the world that both touched him immediately and that which was seemingly removed from his everyday experiences. All layers will have a bearing on the events that took place in the film.
Now is the opportunity to explore critical choices made by some of the central characters highlighted in the film. Many can be examined but we will focus on the following individuals: Emmett Till, Mamie Till, Moses Wright, Roy Bryant, J.W. Millam, and Clarence Strider. Students already know something about Emmett Till. Now they can get a snapshot of other key people. They also are profiled in the PBS website.
Students should read all the descriptions, but they can be broken down into groups that concentrate on one of the above individuals (excluding Emmett Till). The group needs to summarize key information from each person based on the descriptions provided in the website and the film. (A transcript is included as one of the links to help students remember details from the film.) They then must relate this to what they learned earlier about Jim Crow and other aspects of the wider society to build a more complete portrait of the person.
With this information they should respond to the following question that pertains to their character.
- Mamie Till: Why did she want an open casket funeral?
- Roy Bryant: Why did he consider Emmett Till's "whistle" at his wife such a grave offense? (See first and second website mentioned above)
- J.W. Millam: Why did he believe Emmett Till needed to be killed? (See second website)
- Clarence Strider: What did the rule of law mean to him?
- Moses Wright: Why did Moses Wright risk his life to testify against the killers?
Students might not have definitive answers to these questions, but each group can explain to the rest of the class what went into their thinking in trying to answer them.
Each group can present their profiles and responses to their assigned questions to the larger class, allowing for dialog between the group and the rest of the class. While individual choices cannot be reduced to social factors, this exercise allows students to make connections between an event and a person's place in society, and how this place effects the ways in which people make important moral choices pertaining to the event.
At the end of the exercise, ask students what other questions remain about the case that have not been explored. These questions can serve as a springboard to dive deeper into investigating the issues embedded in the movie.
Students can further investigate other figures alluded to in the film, but not discussed in depth. Examples include J. Edgar Hoover and his reluctance to get the FBI involved in the case or President Eisenhower and his refusal to speak publicly about the case. Students might want to investigate the factors that influenced their decisions not to act. The class can also read more about the historical background of lynching, Jim Crow, and the early resistance to racism that is contained in the third lesson of the four part series.