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.”
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.
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.