In 1955, a 14-year-old African American teenager was brutally murdered by white men while visiting relatives in Mississippi. His name was Emmett Till. His murder and the subsequent trial of his accused killers became a lightning rod for moral outrage, both at the time and to this day. The case was not just about the murder of a teenage boy. It was also about a new generation of young people committing their lives to social change. As historian Robin Kelley states,

The Emmett Till case was a spark for a new generation to commit their lives to social change. They said, “We’re not gonna die like this. Instead, we’re gonna live and transform the South so people won’t have to die like this.” And if anything, if any event of the 1950s inspired young people to be committed to that kind of change, it was the lynching of Emmett Till.

Civil rights activists used the murder of Emmett Till as a rallying cry for civil rights protest, transforming a heinous crime into a springboard for justice. The Montgomery Bus Boycott followed closely on the heels of the case. Indeed, Rosa Parks is quoted as saying, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.” 

Black men, including black teenage boys, had been brutally lynched by white men before the murder of Emmett Till. Likewise, before Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were acquitted for this crime, other white men had also gone unpunished for the murders they committed (and even confessed to committing outside of the courtroom). So why, then, did the lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent trial “set in concrete the determination of people to move forward,” according to Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, in a way that previous events of a similar nature did not? What factors contributed to making this event a pivotal moment in the history of the civil rights movement? The answer to this question reveals the dynamic relationship between individual actions and historical context and highlights the power of courageous acts to transform society. Ultimately, we hope students come away from this unit not only with an understanding of the events surrounding the murder of Emmett Till, but also with an awareness of how their historical context shapes their actions, just as their actions have the potential to shape history.