The murder of Emmett Till galvanized a generation of activists to mobilize against racial injustice. Historians have argued that the murder of Emmett Till was the catalyst for the grassroots civil rights movement. The Jet magazine photographs of his tortured body awakened a generation of African American youth to the brutalities of white supremacy and emboldened them to pursue justice. As Joyce Ladner, a Mississippi native who became a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist, put it: “We were the Emmett Till generation.” Encouraging young activists in 2020 to get into “good trouble,” John Lewis wrote: “Emmett Till was my George Floyd.”
Just as the murder of Till sparked a grassroots civil rights movement, outrage over the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 helped to usher in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In 2013, three Black activists, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, founded the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. Following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the movement spread to cities around the country, as activists galvanized their communities to end state-sanctioned violence against Black people.
Similar to the Jet magazine photographs of Emmett Till, cell-phone videos of African Americans killed by the police have sparked outrage and changed public opinion. In July 2014, cell-phone footage captured Eric Garner pleading “I can’t breathe” as New York City police officers held him in a chokehold and pinned him to the sidewalk. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd uttered the same words as Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for over nine minutes while three other officers looked on. Here is a list of some of the names of Black people killed by the police between Eric Garner’s death in 2014 and George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
The Black Lives Matter movement’s efforts to publicize and protest police killings shifted public opinion. A June 2020 New York Times article reported: “Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and that there’s a lot of discrimination against black Americans in society. Back in 2013, when Black Lives Matter began, a majority of voters disagreed.”
George Floyd’s death sparked massive protests across the United States—and around the world. Crowd-counting experts estimate that between 15 million and 26 million people in the United States participated in the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, making them the largest movement in US history. Here is a map of the Black Lives Matter protests on June 6, 2020, when half a million people turned out in nearly 550 sites across the country.
The shift in public opinion and demands for justice have produced some changes. While the grand jury failed to indict the officers in Garner’s death, six years later, Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years for the murder of George Floyd. Additionally, activists have successfully pushed for police reform in cities and states around the country. Several states have banned police chokeholds. The District of Columbia’s Council prohibited the use of riot gear, tear gas, and stun grenades on protestors exercising their First Amendment rights.
Many scholars and activists have noted the throughline that runs from Emmett Till to the recent deaths of Black Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement. As BLM protestors marched worldwide in the summer of 2020, Dave Tell, author of the book Remembering Emmett Till and co-director of the Emmett Till Memory Project, said: “From Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown forward, every police killing we associate with BLM has put Emmett Till back in the news. . . . BLM has put racial injustice front and center, and the Till story has become one of the primary ways people make sense of such injustice.”