Preparing to Journey to the Mississippi Delta | Facing History & Ourselves
Southbound Illinois Central Railroad "Seminole" passenger train crosses main line of West Point Route at station in Opelika, Alabama in August 1955. Absence of interlocker required crew member to flag crossing.

Preparing to Journey to the Mississippi Delta

Consider the talk Mamie Till-Mobley had with her son Emmett before he traveled to Jim Crow-era Mississippi in 1955 and the dangers that prompted her concern.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • Racism
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

In the first lesson of this unit, students are introduced to the history of the murder of Emmett Till by reading Mamie Till-Mobley’s account of “the talk” she had with her 14-year-old son Emmett in 1955 shortly before he journeyed from Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. Students are invited to make personal connections with this account by reflecting on talks they have had with parents or elders who gave them advice out of concern for their safety. By considering why Till-Mobley felt she needed to have this talk with Emmett, students will also learn about the historical context of Jim Crow-era Mississippi in 1955 and the dangerous environment into which Emmett would travel.

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

Why did Mamie Till-Mobley need to prepare Emmett for his journey from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta?

  • Students will consider how both Emmett and Mamie anticipated his trip to Mississippi and the experiences and historical context that shaped their expectations. 
  • Students will understand how racism impacted the daily lives of African Americans in the segregated South.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 1 video
  • 1 reading
  • 1 handout

In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till traveled from Chicago to Money, Mississippi, to visit his granduncle Mose Wright. There he would pick cotton, swim, fish, and hang out with his cousins. For many African American children whose families had fled Mississippi for Chicago during the Great Migration, these trips down south to visit relatives were as close to summer camp as they would enjoy. Nevertheless, prior to his trip, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, felt she had to give him “the talk”: 

He had to understand that he would not be in Chicago and had to act differently . . . “If you’re walking down the street and a white woman is walking toward you, step off the sidewalk, lower your head . . . If you have to humble yourself,” I said, “then just do it. Get on your knees, if you have to.” 1

The social norms relayed to Emmett Till by his mother were a linchpin of white supremacy in the South. Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, argues that white supremacy is an ideology built atop the myth of Black inferiority that was constructed by European colonists in the Americas to justify the political, social, and economic power hierarchies that emerged in the seventeenth century. Stevenson explains, 

The whole narrative of white supremacy was created during the era of slavery. It was a necessary theory to make white Christian people feel comfortable with their ownership of other human beings. . . . We created a narrative of racial difference to maintain slavery. And our 13th amendment never dealt with that narrative. . . . I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved. It turned into decades of racial hierarchy that was violently enforced—from the end of reconstruction until WWII—through acts of racial terror. 2

Despite the Confederacy’s military loss in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, white legislators in former Confederate states acted quickly to subordinate the newly emancipated labor force and maintain white supremacy. In Mississippi (and other states), legislators passed Black Codes reminiscent of the laws that had regulated the behavior of Black people during slavery. Vagrancy laws required newly emancipated African Americans to sign labor contracts or face imprisonment, where they could be assigned to landowners and companies in a system known as convict leasing. Without their own land, most African Americans were forced to sign exploitative sharecropping contracts that they could not read and found themselves trapped in a system of debt peonage. 

Following Reconstruction, state legislators implemented a poll tax and literacy tests to suppress the Black vote and implemented Jim Crow laws to segregate African Americans physically and socially. After 1890, Black people were not able to vote in Mississippi, despite comprising a majority of the state’s population. In 1940, Black people made up 70 percent of the Mississippi Delta’s population but just 1 percent of registered voters. White men enforced these laws and practices with violence: beatings, rapes, and lynchings were common. 

Emmett Till’s family were among the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who migrated to Chicago in the twentieth century. Mamie Till-Mobley was born in Mississippi in 1921, and by 1924 her family had fled Jim Crow Mississippi to settle just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Till’s family members were part of the mass migration known as the Great Migration, during which more than 6 million African Americans escaped the racial violence and oppression of the South and moved to cities in the North and West between 1910 and 1970. 

Segregation and disenfranchisement, enforced by violence, continued in Mississippi after the departure of Emmett Till’s family, even as Black Southerners organized and protested for their rights. But the campaign for civil rights would soon begin to find some success. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Black activists in Mississippi began organizing voter registration drives, despite threats of violence. In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision by deeming “separate but equal” accommodations unconstitutional. The Brown decision galvanized Black civil rights organizations to challenge segregation throughout the South.

In 1955, white supremacist organizations throughout the South responded to Brown by organizing massive resistance to desegregation and voting rights activism. The Mississippi-based Ku Klux Klan committed dozens of church bombings, beatings, and murders of Black voting rights activists. While the Klan used violent intimidation, influential white Southerners organized White Citizens’ Councils, which used their economic influence to intimidate African American activists and pressure white businessmen and politicians to resist federal desegregation efforts.

Even as Emmett looked forward to visiting family and summer activities, his mother knew how quickly danger could arise.


Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

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

In this lesson, students will watch a clip from the documentary The Murder of Emmett Till. The clip includes brief graphic images of lynchings that may be emotionally challenging for some viewers. Specifically, these graphic images begin at 5:30 and end at 5:55. We recommend alerting students, other faculty, and counseling staff at your school before showing these images and giving students the option to avoid viewing the images if they choose. Students who do not want to watch the video may instead read the article “Lynching in America” and answer the following questions:   

  • Why was the South a dangerous place for African Americans?
  • Before Emmett traveled to the South, his mother told him that “Mississippi is not Chicago.” What do you think she meant by this? Why did she remind him of this?
  • How do you think white Southerners reacted to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education

It is important to point out that the article includes a political cartoon found on the cover of an 1899 issue of Puck magazine. The cartoon includes an offensive depiction of an African American man.

The terms “Negro” and “Colored” are used in primary sources throughout the unit. While outdated and offensive today, they were used by both white and Black Americans as standard terms for African Americans during the Jim Crow era. It is important to explain to students that these are both antiquated terms that are now considered offensive. 

Although the N-word does not appear in the video clip selected from The Murder of Emmett Till, the N-word does appear in other parts of the film, specifically at 1:23, 34:10, 37:40, 37:45, 45:33, 48:34. Therefore, be mindful of its presence if you plan on screening footage outside of the selected video clip or if you assign the video as homework. We recommend that you contract about the word with students before they encounter it in the film, including by sharing the provision that students do not say the word aloud. See Strategies for Addressing Racist and Dehumanizing Language in Literature for more suggestions for how to address the N-word in the classroom.

In this lesson, students will be reading Mamie Till-Mobley’s account of “the talk” she had with her 14-year-old son Emmett. This lesson invites students to make personal connections with this account by reflecting on talks they have had with parents or elders who gave them advice out of concern for their safety. While we believe these connections are essential for deepening students’ interest and engagement with the material, we recommend that you specifically avoid asking students to consider what they would have done differently if they were in Emmett Till’s shoes. Such perspective-taking exercises can, at best, lapse into reductive and historically inaccurate discussions. At worst, they contribute to a mentality of victim blaming that absolves Till’s murderers and fails to acknowledge the full extent of racial terror and white supremacy at the root of the crime. 

Some students may react to learning about the Emmett Till murder by discussing how they would have acted differently if they were in Till’s position. This is a normal reaction to the traumatic story of Till’s murder and to the sense of disempowerment felt by many students—especially students of color—who may identify with Till. While complicated emotions are likely to arise as you teach this material and should not be discouraged, we recommend that you steer the class conversation away from this topic for the reasons listed above while also taking care to support students emotionally throughout the unit. See Teaching Note 1: Teaching Emotionally Challenging Content in the “Preparing to Teach” section of this unit for more information. 

One idea that emerges in this lesson is the belief that Chicago was more racially tolerant than Mississippi. While Chicago and other Northern cities did not legislate Jim Crow-style restrictions on the freedoms of Black citizens, racial segregation endured in the North via institutionalized racism, such as housing covenants, and was enforced with violence, evidenced by the wave of racial violence that targeted Black communities in Chicago and across the nation during the Red Summer of 1919. Consider sharing these details with students to ensure that they have a balanced understanding of the experience of African Americans who lived in Northern cities.

Following this lesson, students will complete the first of four formative 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 1: Processing the Essential Question in the “Homework” section of this lesson plan for directions for this activity.

Save this resource for easy access later.

Save resources to create collections for your class or to review later. It's fast, easy, and free!
Have a Workspace already? Log In

Lesson Plans


Begin by asking students to respond to the following prompt in their journals: 

Consider a talk your parents/elders have had with you about how you need to behave in order to keep yourself safe. What was the situation? What was their advice? How did you feel about their advice at the time? What aspects of your identity did the conversation raise?

After students have had a few minutes to write and reflect, ask for a few volunteers to share their responses. To respect students’ privacy if their reflection pertains to a personal experience, we do not recommend requiring them to share aloud. 

Explain to students that today they will examine a conversation that an African American mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, had with her son Emmett before he traveled from Chicago to Mississippi in 1955. Ask students if they are familiar with the name Emmett Till. Explain that over the next six lessons, they will study how his murder would inspire a generation of young activists to pursue justice in the grassroots civil rights movement. Emphasize that this unit isn’t just about a murder. It isn’t about injustice. It’s about how people were inspired to stand up to injustice. Learning about how people stood up in the past will give us tools to stand up to racial injustice today.

Explain that as Emmett Till prepared to visit Mississippi in 1955, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, thought she needed to prepare him for how he would need to behave in order to be safe there.  

Distribute the reading “I Knew I Had to Give Him the Talk” and read Mamie Till-Mobley’s account aloud. Then give students a few moments to highlight a phrase or sentence that they think is particularly important or feels especially meaningful to them. 

After students have highlighted a phrase or sentence in Mamie Till-Mobley’s account, instruct them to write a few sentences about why they chose it and make connections to their own knowledge and experiences. They might write about what it means to them or what it reminds them of, or they might connect it to something that has happened in their own life, in a film or book they have seen or read, or in history or current events.

Next, have students share the phrase or sentence they chose with a partner using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Ask volunteers to share their sentences and reflection with the class.

Next, tell students that they will watch a video clip to learn more about Emmett Till and the historical context of Jim Crow Mississippi into which he traveled in 1955. Distribute the handout Viewing Guide: The Murder of Emmett Till. Students will answer the questions on the viewing guide as they watch the video.

Show the video clip from The Murder of Emmett Till (4:00–14:48). Because the clip includes brief images of lynchings and other violence (specifically at 5:30–5:55), give students a moment after it is over to write privately in their journals about any thoughts or feelings that came up for them while they watched.

See the A Note to Teachers section (Teaching Note 1: Teaching the History of Lynching) for more details on how to best support students and for an alternate activity for students who do not want to watch the video.

Then discuss the following questions from the viewing guide. Timestamps are included to indicate when you may want to pause the video to give students time to respond to each question. 

  • What was life like for African Americans living in Mississippi? (7:46)
  • Mamie Till-Mobley told Emmett that “Mississippi is not Chicago.” What did she mean by this? How was Chicago different? Why did she need to explain this to him? (12:37)
  • By the time Emmett traveled to Mississippi in the summer of 1955, why were race relations tense? (13:51)

By the end of the discussion, be sure that students understand the violent backlash to the Brown v. Board of Education decision as an effort to maintain the white supremacist power structure (i.e., economic and political power over Black citizens).


Finally, at the close of the lesson, ask students to return to their journals and reflect on what they’ve learned from the lesson by completing the following 3-2-1 prompt.

In your journal or on a separate piece of paper, write down the following:

  • Three ways that racism impacted the daily lives of African Americans in the South
  • Two questions you have in response to this lesson 
  • One comment on or connection you made with “the talk” that Emmett’s mother had with him or how it resonates with you 

Extension Activities

You may want to extend students’ learning by exploring contemporary connections to “the talk” that Mamie Till-Mobley gave her son. The video “A Conversation with My Black Son” (5:00) is a mini-documentary in which Black parents reveal their struggles with telling their Black sons that they may be targets of racial profiling by the police. 

Ask students to reflect on the video using the following prompts:

  • Head: What information did you learn from this video? What connections can you make to the talk that Mamie Till-Mobley had with Emmett? 
  • Heart: What emotions does this video raise for you? What aspect of the video stands out to you the most, and why?
  • Conscience: What questions about right or wrong, fairness or injustice, does this video raise for you?

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

Record the essential question in your journal:

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

Then dissect the essential question by making the following notations:

  • Circle words you do not know or understand.
  • Star words that seem to be the central ideas of the essential question.
  • Underline all of the verbs in the essential question.

In your journal or on a separate sheet of paper, record the following:

  • 3 questions you have about the essential question
  • 2 initial ideas or thoughts you have about the essential question
  • 1 “heart” response or emotional reaction to the essential question

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.

Resources from Other Organizations

The following resources from external organizations are referenced in this lesson plan.

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

You might also be interested in…

Unlimited Access to Learning. More Added Every Month.

Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

The resources I’m getting from my colleagues through Facing History have been just invaluable.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif