Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"A New Fear Known to Me": Emmett Till's Influence and the Black Panther Party

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"A New Fear Known to Me": Emmett Till's Influence and the Black Panther Party

Article excerpt

In the pages of the Chicago Defender, alongside those of the other leading "black" newspapers, the drama of Emmett Till's murder dominated the headlines throughout fall 1955. For nineteen consecutive weeks, the paper presented accounts of the final hours of the teenager's life, the outcry of Mississippians (of all races) for swift justice against Till's murderers, the NAACP's efforts to publicize Till's tragedy to the nation-at-large, the gradual backlash of white Mississippians who felt slandered by the NAACP leadership and changed their allegiance from Till to the boy's assailants, and the eventual split between Till's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, and the NAACP over allegations that she sought to profit from her son's misfortune. Unfolding in a near-serialized form, the reportage offered enough new detail and, occasional character transformations - the deceased boy into a civil rights icon, confessed murderers into sympathetic individuals, grieving mother into greedy manipulator - to maintain reader interest. Unlike the infrequent updates on, arguably, the most important features of the Till drama which were published by the mainstream press, the sustained attention given to Emmett Till by publications catering to a largely African American readership suggests that the murder and subsequent trial were viewed as significant events within black communities-at-large and worthy of extended attention. While frequent references to Till within the speeches and sermons of civil rights leaders and activists offer evidence that the boy's murder was used to spark and, thus, ignite the movement toward racial equality on a national level, the teenager's lingering presence within regional black periodicals suggests a local and, perhaps, more intimate impact. Members of a given community could share in Till's story as presented to them through the Chicago Defender and engage with it in the places - barber/ beauty shops, churches, community centers, street corners - where they gathered to discuss the events that had meaning to themselves and their lives. They also could work through the trauma and terror invoked by the image within the privacy of their own homes.

This essay introduces select local encounters and looks at the impact that Till's murder had on African American youth in the 1950s, who were not the intended readership of the black press but had access to Jet and the Chicago Defender among other periodicals. It asserts that the killing not only encouraged a newfound self-awareness among black youth as "black" and, therefore, as being susceptible to violence, but also provided additional motivation toward the formation of political organizations like the Black Panther Party, which advocated a more aggressive pursuit of social reform than the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Till's influence on "the Party" appears not only in the recollections of members, who were nearly the same age as Till when he was murdered, but also in the Party's skillful use of images of injustice to raise civic awareness and mobilize a new movement for social reform, efforts to monitor the police, and establishment of community-based, social service programs which sought to create a hopeful future for new generations of black youth.

The Power of a Photo

The story of Emmett Till, which has been preserved within countless speeches, sermons, popular literature, documentary films, theatrical plays, and even a musical, remains well known today. Till, a Chicago native and barely a teenager, was sent to rural Mississippi to spend part of the summer with his relatives. He quickly befriended other black youths and, apparently, told them that he had a white girlfriend (or girl friend?) in Illinois. It is not definitively known whether the boys, raised in a Jim Crow environment within which even the most innocuous encounter between black men and white women could result in severe and, seemingly, officially sanctioned punishments, implored their northern friend to demonstrate his ability to attract or, at the least, socially engage with white females or whether Till, unprompted, boldly volunteered to put on a show. …

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