The Power of August | Facing History & Ourselves

The Power of August

This CBSN special explores how the murders of Emmett Till and George Floyd sparked two movements, 65 years apart.
Last Updated:

At a Glance

video copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies
disclaimer This resource may contain sensitive material
  • Racism

The Power of August

August is hot, in fact, it's blazing hot. Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe it's not. Maybe it's divine.

The power of August brought us the women's suffrage movement. It brought us the March on Washington. It opened our eyes of the lynching of Emmett Till, it also opened our eyes up of the modern day lynching in Ferguson, Missouri.

Emmett Till's death was a moment, it was a snapshot that galvanized millions of Americans.

We will continue to battle this thing until every man, woman, and child in the United States, when he goes before a court of justice will get justice.

When Emmett Till was laid out in his casket, his mother insisted that it be an open casket, so she said that people can see what they did to him.

We are part of humanity and whatever humanity's problems are, they are ours too.

It's a basic American right, that a citizen should have a right to an education.

On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington took place.

These exlplosions make it probably clear that this is a national issue.

Let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution.

Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color.

August's 1965 was the signing of the Voting Rights Act, one of the most profound pieces of legislation to open up access to democracy for African-Americans.

A conservative majority, five to four, very divided court has ruled that a provision of that key 1965 landmark law, no longer is constitutional. What had been a regional problem now has become a national problem.

I believe that as hard as it will be, the change we need is coming because I've seen it. Because I've seen it in Illinois, I've seen it in Washington, and I've seen it in the good neighbors who take a stranger in when a hurricane strikes, and the floodwaters rise.

This is a once in probably a lifetime event.

On August 29, 2005, Katrina hit my beloved hometown, New Orleans.

Where's female, where's the male?

I understand the devastation requires more than one day's attention.




August 2014, Michael Brown was murdered, and the Ferguson uprising followed.

What do we want?


It brought me down to my knees and made me feel crippled as if I could do nothing else anymore.



It is no accident that the voters who tend to be targeted by voter suppression tactics happen to be Black and Brown voters.

The Black vote is significant.

It is the right that enables all other rights.

It's probably as important as it's ever been.

We must vote because our lives depend on it.

Hello, I'm Maurice DuBois. Some of the most powerful moments in American Civil rights history have happened in the month of August. Some were violent, others tragic. There have also been days of triumph and hope. Good or bad, the power of these moments changed the course of America and the pursuit of a more perfect union. We will look at how the impact of these August events is still being felt today in August of 2020, in the midst of a pandemic that is ravaging communities of color and after months of protests by Americans of all races, ages, and incomes.

Even now, we are in the midst of another August moment. The country is reeling from the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot several times in the back--


--as his children watched in the car.

They shot my son seven times like he didn't matter, but my son matters.

Professional athletes were so disturbed that in a historic move, players from the NBA, Major League Baseball, WNBA, Major League Soccer, and tennis boycotted games and matches to send a message of defiance and hope for change. Their boycott came almost 4 years to the day in August 2016, when Colin Kaepernick first decided not to stand for the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality against Black people. Superstar LeBron James expressed his frustration.

Some people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified.

Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers--

It's amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.

As her son recovers in the hospital, unable to walk, Jacob's mother captured the mood of the nation.

As I pray for my son's healing, I also have been praying even before this, for the healing of our country.

The need for healing is taking place during a tumultuous year when the voting power of all Americans will be key in November's presidential election. In four stories, we will explore the power of August. Each segment will be told in 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the approximate time a Minneapolis police officer had his knee on George Floyd's neck. We begin in 1955 in Mississippi with a boy named Emmett Till. Vlad Duthiers has the story.


Life for most Black men and women in 1950s America was a daily struggle. Their lives were separate and unequal, and especially, in the South, Black people knew their lives were also at risk.

There was overt racism. It was open and notorious.

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson.

And for a young man like Emmett Till to travel from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta, it was a world of different.



That difference would be a matter of life and death for 14-year-old happy-go-lucky Emmett Till. In August 1955, his mother sent him to Mississippi to spend the summer with his relatives. His family loved young Emmett's jovial personality, but as his cousin, Wheeler Parker Jr. told "60 Minutes" Ed Bradley back in 2004, it wasn't something to flaunt in the segregated South.

He was the center of attraction. He loved pranks. He loved fun. He loved jokes. He just was there in the center of everything. He's kind of a natural born leader.

Why would that be a problem?

In Mississippi, why would it be a problem? It'd be a problem because the Mississippians, what he thought was just fun or a joke wasn't funny to them.

Which is why no one laughed when young Emmett whistled at a white woman, a joke that would cost him his life. Emmett's late mother Mamie Till would describe what was left of her only child.

I looked at the bridge of his nose, and it looked like someone had taken a meat chopper and chopped it. And I looked at his teeth because I took so much pride in his teeth. His teeth were the prettiest things I'd ever seen in my life, I thought. And I only saw two. Well, where are the rest of them? They'd just been knocked out. And I was looking at his ears, and that's when I discovered a hole about here, and I could see daylight on the other side. I said, now, was it necessary to shoot him?

I said, I want the world to see this because when people saw what had happened to this little 14-year-old boy, they knew then that not only were men, Black men, in danger, but Black children as well.

There were 10,000 people who saw that body in Chicago.

NAACP Legal Defense Fund President and Director Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill.

Many millions more who saw it because of the photograph in Jet magazine.

I can't breathe.

In May 2020, tens of millions more saw the video of 46-year-old George Floyd take his last breath.

I think that snapshot of the officer kneeling on his neck, the cry that we heard from George Floyd for his mother--


--his trying desperately to hold on to life really was incredibly powerful.

George Floyd paid with his life when a police officer placed his knee on his neck, suffocating him all because Floyd allegedly used a fake $20 bill.


The horror of both killings, 65 years apart, which sparked two movements. In December of 1955, following a rally protesting the acquittal of Till's murderers, a young Rosa Parks decided not to sit in the back of the bus. Days later, the groundbreaking year-long Montgomery bus boycott would be in place, launching a generation of activists, including a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who would call Till's murder one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of the 20th century.

Both the bus boycott and the Emmett Till murder also inspired a then 15-year-old to join the movement a few years later. That would be the boy from Troy, late Congressman John Lewis. In an essay Lewis wrote before his death which was published on the day of his funeral, it read in part, "Emmett Till was my George Floyd."

John Lewis's words were so powerful, essentially, he was giving permission for people to understand this as a civil rights moment just as Emmett Till's murder was.

Permission to activists like 25-year-old Nialah Edari.

I remember while riding my bike slowly through this protest, just crying and feeling not this again.

Do you think that the death of George Floyd is as galvanizing a moment as the death of Emmett Till was in 1955?

Absolutely, I definitely believe that the death of George Floyd is as galvanizing as the death of Emmett Till because it definitely sparked, it sparked outrage across the world. And I think the other difference that we have now that they didn't have back then is just the power of social media.

A people united will never be defeated. Edari co-founded Freedom March NYC, along with 23-year-old Chelsea Miller.

You say that it was born in the wake of the George Floyd killing. Describe the moment when you both decided that you needed to do something more.

We realized, especially as young people who understand the richness of our history of civil rights and the leaders who have come before us, that you have to be present, and you have to show up, and you have to bear witness to the narrative to be a part of changing the story.

Black lives matter.

A message heard in cities around the world, sparking a new sense of awareness and unprecedented multicultural activism.

What you had in this instance was a popular uprising of protesters.

National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial.

Big cities, small towns in France and the UK, what we saw is white men and women, Black men and women, young and old.

A movement that 19-year-old Sierra van Rossem did not hesitate to join.

I don't want there to be another name on this list. Why is George Floyd another name? We need this to stop and call attention to it.

The California native has been politically active since she was 8 years old.

So we're going to use this platform now that we have been given to really elevate our voices, elevate our communities' voices, elevate our brothers and sisters that haven't had this opportunity to do so.

Chelsea and Nialah have never met Sierra, but lean on activists like her who bring diversity to the cause, showing that the killings of innocent Black people have a profound effect on entire communities.

When I go out and I protest, it's not just Black folks who are out there. It is non-Black allies, and one of the things that we say on the front lines is show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like. It is community.

Are you discouraged or are you encouraged by what you've seen?

I am encouraged, and I'm inspired by the people all over the world who have taken to the streets. And I believe that change will happen. I'm not sure what it will look like, but I believe a change will happen.

We are coming together to be one human race where we stand up and uplift others that don't necessarily have the voice.


But will there be a Martin Luther King Jr. or John Lewis coming out of today's movement?

No justice, no peace.

I think that this movement doesn't need a central leader. A lot of the critique that this movement gets is because of how decentralized it is, because when you cut off one head, there are still dozens, hundreds, thousands of heads operating. And if you look at the movement right now, there isn't one leader, and I think there's a beauty to that.


Chelsea Miller hopes today's movement will honor the sacrifices of the forefathers of activism.

The promise that we are holding America to is not going to happen overnight. But we have to continue to push, and we have to continue to advocate. And we have to continue to show up. And that is the power of the March on Washington as we commemorate the history of that, but also making sure that we hold leaders accountable, and we show leaders that we are the future of this country, and we will make sure that we get it right.

Women have always been a powerful force in the trenches of the Civil Rights movement. A look back at the women behind the historic 1963 March on Washington, next.

The Power of August


You might also be interested in…

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif