"A Rallying Cry and a Cause" | Facing History & Ourselves
A large crowd gathers outside the Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ in Chicago, Ill., Sept. 6, 1955 as pallbearers carry the casket of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was slain while on a visit to Mississippi. Police estimate a crowd of about 2,000.

"A Rallying Cry and a Cause"

Explore Mamie Till-Mobley’s courageous decision to show the public Emmett Till’s body through an open-casket funeral and photos in Jet magazine and consider why Emmett’s death generated widespread determination to pursue racial justice.


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 this lesson, students will explore the murder of Emmett Till within the context of the Mississippi backlash to Brown v. Board of Education and local voting rights activism. They will examine new evidence to make hypotheses about why Emmett Till’s murder resonated with the public and became a rallying cry in a way that previous murders did not. In the process, they will consider the power of photographs, the importance of activism, and the courageous choices of Mamie Till-Mobley.

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 Emmett Till’s murder resonate in a way that others did not?

  • Students will examine the courageous choices of Mamie Till-Mobley in the aftermath of her son’s murder. 
  • Students will consider the murder of Emmett Till within the context of the Mississippi backlash to Brown v. Board of Education and local voting rights activism.

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

  • 1 video
  • 2 readings

In the months prior to Emmett Till’s murder, terrorists had assassinated Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith for their voting rights activism; however, the national press and federal government largely ignored the murders. In May, Lee was murdered in Belzoni, Mississippi, and then in August, Smith was shot in broad daylight on the courthouse lawn in Brookhaven. The assassinations were a response to the “new, more aggressive leadership cadre that had developed among Mississippi Negroes in the postwar years,” explains Charles Payne. “In the previous year, NAACP membership statewide had gone up a staggering fifty percent; after the violence and economic intimidations of the fall [of 1955], chapters all across the state started falling apart.” 1 It was within this context of activism and backlash that Emmett Till was murdered, and these were chief concerns in the minds of African Americans as they processed the tragedy. Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers, wrote that Till’s murder “could have been just another Mississippi lynching. It wasn’t. This one somehow struck a spark of indignation that ignited protests around the world . . . [Y]oung Emmett Till became in death what he never could have been in life: a rallying cry and a cause.”  2

George Lee was a leader within the community, as a Baptist pastor, shopkeeper, owner of a printing press, and co-founder of the Belzoni chapter of the NAACP. He used the pulpit and the press to encourage African Americans to register to vote, and he soon became a target of the White Citizens’ Council. Days after he received a note threatening him if he did not remove his name from the voter rolls, Lee was assassinated on the evening of May 7, 1955. While he was driving home, a car pulled up alongside him and an unidentified man fired three shotgun blasts, shattering his jaw and causing him to crash. Local police claimed Lee’s death was the result of an auto accident, dismissing the buckshot in his face as dental fillings loosened upon impact. His wife, Rosebud Lee, held an open-casket funeral to allow the community to see his wounded face and challenge the police narrative. Jet magazine published a photo of Lee in the casket, alongside a picture of him alive, “introducing conventions of narrative that would prove crucial in later reporting of Emmett Till’s murder,” notes historian Adam Green. “Readers were led to see that, at base, the struggle against racism in postwar America was a struggle by blacks to compel recognition of their own humanity.” 3

After Emmett Till was murdered, Mamie Till-Mobley took control of the narrative in a similar way to Rosebud Lee by making three crucial decisions. First, she decided to have Emmett’s body returned to Chicago, despite efforts by Mississippi officials to have him buried “immediately.” Second, she decided to unseal the box containing Till’s remains to ensure that her son was inside. This was because his remains arrived in Chicago in a padlocked box with a seal of the State of Mississippi placed across the lid. To get Emmett’s body out of Mississippi, Chicago mortician A. A. Rayner and Till-Mobley’s Mississippi relatives were required to sign papers agreeing not to break the seal. 4 When Rayner expressed his hesitation to open the box, Till-Mobley told him, “I didn’t sign any papers. And I dare them to sue me. Let them come to Chicago and sue me.” 5

Lastly, Till-Mobley chose to hold an open-casket funeral service and allow Jet magazine to photograph her son in order to “let the world see what I’ve seen.” 6 This decision was monumental. Historian David Tell notes that the photograph of Emmet Till’s remains “inspired what Charles Payne called the ‘Till Generation’—the generation of activists who came to the fore in the 1960s but who were moved to action by the 1955 photograph.” 7 Viewers of the Till photos, especially those of his age, routinely remarked that they saw themselves in his mutilated corpse. Adam Green explains that this was not coincidental: Mamie Till-Mobley’s “resolve to present her son’s body for viewing, and the expert preparation of the corpse worked together to intertwine desecration and adornment, resulting in a poignant public memorial that nonetheless sternly refused any easy compensations of sentimentality. The velvet lining of the coffin, the combed hair crowning the decomposed face, the glimpse of suit and tie veiling the ravaged body complicated the horrifying appearance of the corpse—yes, these images bespoke a heinous crime, but as well a mother’s love and a mortician’s care, thus anticipating the twinning of indignation and identification that marked its reception among African Americans. Mississippi’s brutality, these photos said, was best appreciated juxtaposed to tender reclamation of Till as a boy gone home.” 8

  • 1Charles M. Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 40.
  • 2 Myrlie Evers-Williams and William Peters, For Us, the Living (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 170–71.
  • 3Adam Green, Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940–1955 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 194–95.
  • 4 Christine Harold and Kevin Michael DeLuca, “Behold the Corpse: Violent Images and the Case of Emmett Till,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 8, no. 2: 278.
  • 5Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (New York: One World, 2003), 131–32.
  • 6Till-Mobley and Benson, Death of Innocence, 139.
  • 7Dave Tell, Remembering Emmett Till (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 130.
  • 8Green, Selling the Race, 197.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

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

As students will learn in this lesson, one of the important choices that Mamie Till-Mobley made after her son Emmett’s murder was to have an open casket at the funeral and to allow photographs of her son to appear in Jet magazine. These photographs were an important factor in galvanizing the public outcry and civil rights activism that followed Emmett’s murder. In this lesson, the images of Emmett’s corpse briefly appear in a clip from the video “The Lost Story of Emmett Till: The Universal Child” (timestamp 16:37). 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 “Emmett Till’s Open Casket Funeral Reignited the Civil Rights Movement” and complete a Color, Symbol, Image reflection in response to the article.

This lesson includes a stations activity with two texts that you should set up before class:

  • Copy the handouts for each station and place them in numbered or labeled folders (Station 1 and Station 2). Make enough copies of each folder so that there is one available for each group member to use while they visit each station (i.e., if you have divided students into groups of four, have four copies of each folder at each station).
  • Think about whether you will create random, heterogeneous, or leveled groups for the stations or have students select their own groups. Set up the classroom so there are table groups for each station.

Following this lesson, students will complete the second 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 2: Learning from Mamie Till-Mobley 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 class by asking students to respond to the following prompt in their journals:

Write about a time you learned about something in the news that shocked you, opened your eyes to an important issue, or changed the way you think about the world. What was it? Why did it have such an impact on you? What about the way it was reported in the news helped you understand it more deeply?

After a few minutes, give several volunteers the opportunity to share their responses.

Watch the clip from the film The Lost Story of Emmett Till (13:02–18:41). The film begins with the discovery of Till’s body and ends with the public reaction after viewing Till’s remains. Please note that at timestamp 16:37, the clip includes the photo of Emmett Till’s remains that was published in Jet magazine. See Teaching Note 1 in the A Note to Teachers section of this lesson plan for more details on how to best support students and for an alternate activity for students who do not want to watch the video.

Instruct students to complete a reflection based on the Color, Symbol, Image strategy in their journals by offering the following prompt:

  • Think about your experience watching the video clip and the ideas and emotions it evoked for you. Choose one idea or emotion that you’d like to focus on. Then do the following:
    • Choose a color that you think best represents that idea or emotion.
    • Choose a symbol that you think best represents that idea or emotion. 
    • Choose an image that you think best represents that idea or emotion.

Explain that, in large part due to Mamie Till-Mobley’s courageous choices, the murder of Emmett Till motivated a generation of leaders to pursue racial justice. They staged demonstrations, held rallies, participated in letter-writing campaigns, and fundraised for the civil rights groups like the NAACP. But what was it about Emmett Till’s murder that caused millions to take a stand? 

Thousands of African Americans had been victims of racial violence; however, none of those tragedies had the same effect as the murder of Emmett Till. Before moving into the next activity, in which students explore the question of why Emmett Till’s murder resonated in a way that others did not, share with students that in the months prior to Emmett Till’s murder, George Lee and Lamar Smith had both been murdered for their voting rights activism in Mississippi. However, the national press and federal government largely ignored the murders, despite Lee also having an open-casket funeral.

Ask students to write their initial thoughts in response to the question, “Why did Emmett Till’s murder resonate in a way that others did not?” 

Explain to students that they will be working in small groups of three to five to interact with two texts that will help them think more deeply about the guiding question. The Stations strategy activity will use the following sources. (Note that you may need to create multiple copies of the same source.)

Tell students that they will have ten minutes at each station and that they will use the Connect, Extend, Challenge teaching strategy to take notes on each source. Before leaving each station, they will discuss and complete two or more of the following sentences in their journals:

  • “The information and ideas at this station connected to, or supported, my initial thinking about the guiding question because ___________.”
  • “The information and ideas at this station extended, or broadened, my initial thinking about the guiding question because ___________.”
  • “The information and ideas at this station challenged, or complicated, my initial thinking about the guiding question because ___________.”

Assign each group to begin at a different station, and ask the groups to move to their first stations. As students work, circulate to listen in on their conversations or work with struggling groups if they need help understanding the text or instructions. Direct groups to move to the next station after the allotted amount of time has passed until all of the groups have visited every station.

Debrief the activity as a class, using the following questions: 

  • What conclusions did you draw about the guiding question from the sources you examined?
  • What questions do you have after examining the sources?

Finally, ask students to respond to the following prompts in their journals, which they can complete for homework if time is short: 

  • After having considered all of the sources in this lesson, how would you respond to the guiding question now? Why did Emmett Till’s murder resonate in a way that others did not?

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

In Lessons 2 and 3, you examined the historical context of Southern white supremacy and the choices made by Mamie Till-Mobley to speak out against racial lynchings. Review the primary source documents from both of these lessons. 

Next, highlight words, phrases, or quotations from the documents that illustrate ways that white supremacy was enforced and Till-Mobley’s rationale in deciding to hold an open-casket funeral. In your journal, write down some initial thoughts as you reflect on how this evidence could help you answer the essential question: “As we pursue racial justice today, what can be learned from the choices people have made in response to racial violence in the past?” 

Note: If you struggle to generate thoughts, consider using the following prompt to get started:

  • What tactics did Mamie Till-Mobley use to pursue racial justice? How might these tactics be applied to the pursuit for racial justice today?

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.

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.

Most teachers are willing to tackle the difficult topics, but we need the tools.
— Gabriela Calderon-Espinal, Bay Shore, NY