Ron Lora: Yes, Emmett Till’s life mattered

Ron Lora - Guest Columnist

Today we are 66 years removed from the day in 1955 when 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Black boy from Chicago, was brutally murdered when visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. One day he entered Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market to buy 2 cents worth of bubble gum. Witnesses said it sounded as though he directed a wolf-whistle at Carolyn Bryant, the white woman tending the store.

Word of the young boy’s “disrespect” spread, whereupon Carolyn’s husband and brother-in-law (and others with them) kidnapped Emmett in the dark of night, tortured him, and then dumped the mangled corpse in the Tallahatchie River. The recovered body was broken, barely recognizable, with a gouged eye, part of an ear missing and a portion of his head knocked out.

Tried before a jury of 12 white men, the two accused killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were speedily acquitted. In 2010 Carolyn Bryant finally admitted that most of her story was fabricated.

The murder was a sensation, for many had chosen to believe that such horror happened only in the past. But the Jim Crow South lived on. If what was done to Till requires documentation of similar horrors, take a look at the book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.” It displays nearly a hundred grisly photos of public hangings in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War II, when thousands of African-Americans were lynched. When hangings were publicized in advance, hundreds and even thousands would arrive to witness the sadistic torture and the chopping off of body parts – some saved as souvenirs.

We look in disbelief at the faces of onlookers, whose expressions range from nonchalance to glee. Postcards with photos of the hangings were shared by mail, with one bragging about “the barbeque we had last night.” Another proclaimed the “great day we had in Dallas.”

Emmett Till’s murder grew into an international event when his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted that Black lives mattered too and decided on an open-casket funeral in Chicago so “the world can see what they did to my boy.” Upwards of 50,000 attended, visibly displaying their discomfort, anguish, and anger.

Today we read of several states attempting to control the ways in which history is taught. For example, Tennessee’s Department of Education warns that in African-American history classes, teachers must avoid teaching in a manner that individuals “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.” Disregarding this warning could result in penalizing the school in question by withholding $5 million in funding. How one can examine Jim Crow outrages and sickening photos of lynchings and not feel discomfort and anguish defies reason. One suspects Tennessee legislators are wallowing in a sea of political panic.

The legacy of Emmett Till is considerable. The manner of his death forced the nation to recognize that racial violence continued in both South and North. Northern newspapers had been stand-offish in reporting terrorist activities; even major newspapers had not established “civil rights beats” or arranged for stringers in Southern states. The Till case changed that.

During the decade after Till’s murder, a flurry of civil rights confrontations took place. That December, Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white man, prompting the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. Nine Black students were blocked from entering Little Rock High School, leading President Eisenhower to send federal troops to protect them.

The 1960s brought the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, and saw “Freedom riders” going south to protest segregated bus terminals. In August 1963 the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place, culminating in Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In the following month four young Black girls died from a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. And in 1964 and 1965 the Lyndon Johnson administration brought about two landmark civil rights acts that outlawed racial discrimination in all public accommodations and supported Black voting rights.

All the foregoing cannot be credited to the Till Case. But Emmett Till mattered, though not as he could have imagined. His unsought death drew attention to the fact that in the minds of millions, white lives mattered more than those of Blacks. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement draws on that history, combining it with present racial injustices to proclaim: Equal freedom for all, equal justice for all.

Ron Lora

Guest Columnist

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at

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