He was the face of the civil rights movement.
Emmett “Bobo” Till’s grossly distorted face was displayed in an open casket. Photographed and framed in American publications, his horrific death changed the way many people viewed racism in North America in the 1950s.
“Till” is a new film directed by Chinonye Chukwu and is in theaters now. It retells the story of the 14-year-old boy from Chicago, who was brutally lynched during a summer trip to Money, Mississippi, in 1955 and chronicles his mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s unwavering pursuit of justice.
The movie is a necessary reminder that what the world needs more of is both love and justice.
Still, his mother’s love could not protect him and there was no justice for Emmett Till — not that night, not after the murder trial that delivered an acquittal by an “all-white” jury after an hour of deliberation, not after his alleged killers Roy Bryan and J.W. Milam confessed to the crime in the January 1956 issue of Look magazine, not after Carolyn Bryant Donham confessed that her claims of Till making a sexual advance and grabbing her arm were false.
Sadly, Till’s mother would never live to see justice for her boy.
It was only this year that lynching became illegal. It took more than 50 years for it to be declared a federal crime. While Till’s death galvanized the African American community, it didn’t immediately change the laws of the land.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice closed the case. There would be no justice and, consequently, no peace for Emmett Till or his mother. But we can’t just move on or act as if we are somehow beyond the possibility of mob violence. Remember the January 6 insurrection.
With Till’s bloated face blatantly depicting the grotesque results of a communal belief in race and thousands of postcards that featured the smiling faces of European Americans at highly publicized lynchings, what is there to miss or misconstrue?
It is as clear as the black-and-white photos, as the advertisements for mob violence featured in Southern newspapers. Mamie Till-Mobley is no longer with us; now, what are we going to do with this picture?
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor,” the late Congressman John Lewis wrote in a posthumous op-ed in The New York Times titled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.”
In 2020, George Floyd’s death would inspire millions of Americans to leave their homes in the midst of a global pandemic to protest his gruesome death, filmed and shared on social media.
Now, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was tried, convicted and sentenced to 22.5 years after kneeling on Floyd’s neck. According to the medical examiner, it was due to the pressure exerted for nearly 10 minutes, despite the false claims of rapper Kanye West.
Two more former Minneapolis officers, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng, who were involved in Floyd’s murder have also recently pleaded guilty.
Some say, “The wheels of justice turn slowly.” But where are we going when we can’t see the injustice right in front of our faces?
How many more images of extrajudicial killings do we have to see? How many more movies will have to be created to tell the story of a teenager killed in Money, Mississippi, in Sanford and Jacksonville, Florida, in Chicago, Illinois, in Cleveland, Ohio, in Ferguson, Missouri?
Social critic and American philosopher Cornel West warned us in Race Matters: “Our truncated public discussions of race suppress the best of who and what we are as a people because they fail to confront the complexity of the issue in a candid and critical manner.”
I think that Mamie Till-Mobley would agree.
When asked if she wanted the body “touched up,” she responded, “I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till.” More than 50,000 people viewed his body on a Sunday at a southside Chicago church in 1955. Many were overwhelmed and some even fainted.
But after they had faced this disturbing reality and looked at the results of white supremacy and its hatreds, they were ready to march and to get as far away from any semblance of a society that would think that this is what justice looks like. Go see the movie.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content involving racism, strong disturbing images and racial slurs.
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Writers: Michael Reilly, Keith Beauchamp and Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley; Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till; Whoopi Goldberg as Alma Carthan; Sean Patrick Thomas as Gene Mobley; John Douglas Thompson as Moses Wright.
The movie’s website is here.
Director of The Raceless Gospel Initiative, associate editor, and host of the Good Faith Media podcast “The Raceless Gospel.”