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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”