The Legacy of Emmett Till | Facing History & Ourselves
George Floyd mural outside Cup Foods at Chicago Ave and E 38th St in Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Legacy of Emmett Till

Students identify continuities and changes between Emmett Till’s murder and today’s Black Lives Matter movement, and they reflect on the ways they can contribute to the movement for racial justice.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Racism
  • Resistance


About This Lesson

In the final lesson of this unit, students will consider the connections between the murder of Emmett Till and contemporary victims of violence against Black people in the United States, as well as some connections between the grassroots civil rights movement that was galvanized by Till’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged after the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and worldwide protests after the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and several others in 2020. Students will imagine what it would look like to achieve justice for these shooting deaths, and they will learn about a variety of efforts to do so.

As we pursue racial justice today, what can be learned from the choices people have made in response to racial violence in the past?

What is the legacy of Emmett Till in the ongoing pursuit of racial justice?

  • Students will identify echoes of the murder of Emmett Till and its aftermath in contemporary American society.
  • Students will make connections between the grassroots civil rights movement galvanized by the murder of Emmett Till and the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
  • Students will deepen their capacity for civic engagement by considering their role in the struggle for justice for Emmett Till and for all of the victims of racial violence in the time since his murder.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 1 handout
  • 1 video

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.” 1 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.” 2

  • 1Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy, “How Public Opinion Has Moved on Black Lives Matter,” New York Times, June 10, 2020.
  • 2Keisha Rowe, “Painful Echoes: How Emmett Till's Death Paved the Way for Black Lives Matter 65 years Later,” Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, August 28, 2020.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

In Activity 2 of this lesson, students return to the iceberg diagrams they created in Lesson 2 to draw connections between the murder of Emmett Till and acts of violence against Black Americans today. Students may be familiar with the police killing of George Floyd, but they may also raise examples of police violence whose cases did not result in guilty verdicts such as the shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor. Moreover, students may recall the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, whose death at the hands of civilians resulted in a murder conviction, or they may remember that Trayvon Martin, whose death by a civilian perpetrator resulted in a not guilty verdict, was a catalyst for multiple protests during the summer of 2013.  While there are meaningful distinctions between each case, each death occurred within a society where Black lives have continued to be criminalized. In most cases, non-Black people claimed to believe that they were upholding the law and/or keeping people safe when they killed Black people. Some students may struggle to identify these connections, and you may need to provide additional support if students have clarifying questions or if you notice that class discussions comparing acts of violence, past and present, are not attending to these nuances.

This lesson prompts students to make contemporary connections to the murder of Emmett Till. Activity 1 asks students to identify echoes of Till’s murder that resonate today, and Activity 2 asks students to identify continuity and change in the history of racial violence in the United States. Together, these reflections can surface personal experiences that may be emotionally challenging for students. 

When studying this painful history, its legacies, and connections between the past and present, students may cycle through a number of reactions, including anger, pessimism, and feelings of disempowerment. Students may make comments such as “Nothing has changed, everything is the same,” or “Nothing can be done.” Whether students are feeling proud about how much work has been done to combat racial injustice, disheartened that they see so many similar stories in the present, or any number of other normal responses, it is important to offer support as they express themselves. We also recommend that, whenever possible, you steer them in the direction of recognizing their own agency and capacity to make change, as the activities in Day 2 of this lesson do. We also recommend that you inform staff at your school about the content of today’s lesson. See Teaching Note 1: Teaching Emotionally Challenging Content in the “Preparing to Teach” section of this unit for more information.

Following this lesson, students will complete the final of four activities interspersed throughout the unit that are designed to help them develop their thoughts, gather evidence, and continually reflect back on the essential question in preparation for the summative assignment. You should assign the activity as homework. See Formative Activity 4: Learning from Young Activists in the “Homework” section of this lesson plan for directions for this activity.

This lesson gives students the opportunity to draw connections between the murder of Emmett Till and contemporary examples of racial violence. If you anticipate that your students will struggle to identify examples of racial violence, consider taking information from the context section of this lesson to share with your class in an accessible way, such as by creating slides or your own student-facing handout.

One activity in this lesson will require students to revisit their completed iceberg diagram from Lesson 2. The day before teaching this lesson, remind students to bring their completed diagrams to class.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1 Activities

Begin class by asking students to write a response to the following prompt:

What echoes of the murder of Emmett Till and its aftermath are we seeing and experiencing today?

Encourage students to consider current events, what they’ve heard or seen in the news, or any other relevant connections they can make. After students have had sufficient time to write their responses, engage them using the Think, Pair, Share strategy by having them share their reflections with a neighbor, and then bring the class together and elicit responses from volunteers. 

Responses will vary, but students might draw connections between the murder of Emmett Till and acts of violence against Black people such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and, more recently, Tyre Nichols. Students may also draw parallels between the grassroots civil rights movement that was galvanized by Till’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged after the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin and inspired worldwide protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. (See Teaching Note 4: Support Students in Making Connections between Till’s Murder and Today in the “Preparing to Teach” section of this lesson for advice about how to fill in gaps in student knowledge if they struggle to make contemporary connections.)

Explain to students that they will continue to explore connections between the murder of Emmett Till and contemporary events. Ask them to take out the iceberg diagram they completed from Lesson 2: Contextualizing Emmett Till's Murder, and give them a moment to reread their work. Briefly review the historical context of Emmett Till’s murder by asking students to discuss in pairs the following question:

How does the context explain how the murder of Emmett Till was possible?

Once students have had enough time to discuss in pairs, elicit responses from volunteers. Then ask students to write a written reflection to the following prompt in their journals.

Do you think the context you documented in the iceberg diagram helps explain acts of violence against Black people today? What is the same? What is different?

Once students have had ample time to record their thoughts, ask them to share with a neighbor. Then bring the class together and elicit responses from volunteers. Possible connections students may make include:

  • Implicit biases by white people toward people of color  
  • Continuation of racist attitudes, albeit not as overt as during the 1950s
  • Elimination of Jim Crow laws, but the continued over-policing and punitive enforcement of laws in communities of color
  • Expanded voting rights, but the continued underrepresentation of people of color in government

Explain to students that the struggle for racial justice is ongoing, and it relies on the choices of individuals and communities. Explain that the protests that occurred around the world after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 were sparked in large part by a video that was recorded at the scene by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier that went viral. 

Tell students that for the rest of class, they will be examining Frazier’s choice and its impact and connecting her decisions to the choices of figures like Ida B. Wells and Mamie Till-Mobley. Pass out the handout Darnella Frazier’s Tribute to George Floyd, and give students several minutes to read and respond using the S-I-T: Surprising, Interesting, Troubling teaching strategy. 

After students have had a few minutes to process their responses to Frazier’s post, ask them to respond to the reflection questions on the handout. Once they have reflected, begin a whole-group discussion about the final question on the handout. 

  • Frazier said that witnessing the murder of George Floyd changed her. In what ways? How? Why?
  • How did Frazier’s experience witnessing Floyd’s murder echo the experiences of those who saw the Jet magazine photo of Emmett Till?
  • How does Darnella Frazier’s decision to film George Floyd’s murder and post the video compare with the choices made by Mamie Till-Mobley? How are these acts similar? How are they different?
  • What would achieving justice for George Floyd look like? What would need to happen to prevent such murders?

Give students the opportunity to process today’s lesson by engaging them with a Head, Heart, Conscience reflection. Ask students to respond to the following prompts in their journals or on a separate piece of paper. Remind them that they will not be required to share any of their responses aloud with the class. 


  • What did you learn from this lesson? What connections did you make between the murder of Emmett Till and racial injustice today?


  • What emotions did today’s lesson raise for you? What aspect of the lesson stands out to you the most, and why?


  • What can individuals, communities, or governments do to work toward racial justice today?

Time permitting, initiate a class discussion by asking students to share aloud their reflections.

Day 2 Activities

The murder of George Floyd sparked national and international protests as people reckoned with the racial inequalities that shaped society. Inspired by the surge of activism sparked by George Floyd’s murder, civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis (D-GA) penned this essay in the New York Times shortly before his death. In it, he urged Americans to continue their pursuit for justice. 

Ask students to read this quote from Lewis’s essay: 

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

Ask students to respond to the quote using the following prompts: 

  • What connections can you make between John Lewis’s quote and what you have learned in this unit?
  • How might this idea connect to the choices you’ve learned about in this unit (e.g., the choices of Mamie Till-Mobley, Ida B. Wells, and Darnella Frazier)? 

After students have had enough time to write, initiate a class discussion by asking volunteers to share their responses. 

Remind students that, like democracy, justice is not a state; it’s an act. Racial justice requires people to continuously pursue justice. Explain to students that they will watch a video that shows how the killings of Emmett Till and George Floyd galvanized movements for justice. Show a clip from the CBS News report The Power of August (10:00–15:24). After the clip is over, lead a brief discussion with the following questions:

  • What similarities and differences do you see in the movements?
  • What do you think is the power of young people in both movements?
  • Do you share the young activists’ feelings of optimism? Why or why not?

Explain to students that they will explore the different choices they can make to become an engaged citizen and pursue racial justice by choosing a reading to help them learn about tangible ways they can become an active participant. 

Ask students to pick one of the articles below to read with a partner. 

After pairs finish reading their article, ask students to write a reflection independently in response to the following prompt:

What are two strategies you can adopt to pursue racial justice? Explain why you chose these strategies and why you believe they are important. 

The final activity for this lesson, and for this unit, will engage students in a reflection that draws on what they’ve learned in the lesson and throughout the unit. Tell students that they will be reflecting on the value of learning about the murder of Emmett Till and the choices made in its aftermath. Ask them to reflect on the following prompts in their journals or on an exit ticket:

  • I came in thinking . . .
    (What feelings or thoughts did you have about learning this history before?)
  • Now I think . . .
    (How has your thinking changed or deepened?)
  • Next, I want to . . .
    (What lessons are you taking away from this history to guide your actions or choices in the future?) 

Once students have written their responses, engage them in a Think, Pair, Share, and then ask for volunteers to share their responses with the class.

Extension Activities

As part of our current events collection, Facing History has created a series of teaching ideas designed to help students think critically about the long and troubling history between law enforcement and Black Americans. Use the series Policing and the Legacy of Racial Injustice to help your students bring a historical lens to these complex issues, engage with nuanced sources that reflect a range of experiences with policing, and consider ways to build a society that ensures the safety of all people.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund resource “The Changing Landscape of Policing” provides an index of reforms that have been enacted by cities and states to ​​strengthen accountability for law enforcement and work to create fundamental changes to public safety systems. Share these resources with your students to enable them to assess the progress that activists have made since the protests of 2020. As students explore the index, ask them to consider the following questions:

  • What significant policies have changed in terms of how police interact with citizens?
  • Which policies do you think are the most significant to ensuring racial justice? Why?


Share the following directions with students and have them complete the activity for homework:

In Lessons 5 and 6, you examined the choices made by young activists who responded to racial injustice. Review your class notes and the primary source documents from both of these lessons. 

Next, highlight words, phrases, or quotations from the documents that illustrate what motivated young people to fight racial injustice. What motivated the young people you studied in class to confront racial injustice? What did they need in order to take action?

In your journal, write down some initial reflections about what motivates you by responding to the following prompt: What are you motivated to act on? What are some ideas you’ve learned from these lessons about what that action could look like?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

Get this lesson plan and its accompanying student materials in PDF and Google Doc format. Student materials are available in English and Spanish.

Additional Resources

Special Thanks

The Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley Institute and Facing History & Ourselves would like to offer a special thank you to the partners, collaborators, and student advisors who made critical contributions to this curricular unit. They include colleagues from within the Till Institute as well as the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the Alluvial Collective and students from across Mississippi.

Kobie Austin

Christopher Benson

Kenyatta Coleman

Kinsey Crowley  

Abby Jo Flowers

Vondaris Gordon

Germaine Hampton

Zykira Hooper

Jataylon Johnson

Madison Jones

Qadre Latiker

Ashura Lewis

Elliot Long

Zakarriya Love

Katilyn Mackey

Kaliyah Mayes

Dr. Marvel Parker

Colin Richardson

Matthew Richey

Jay Rushing

Hannah Shapiro

Mike Small

Bethany Stanford

Ian Underwood

Dr. Earl Watkins

Jamari Williams

Adrianequa Wilchie

Myiesha Wright

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