In 1955, much of Black America was transfixed by images of a horrible crime: the swollen, disfigured remains of a 14-year-old Chicago boy who had gone to Mississippi to visit family.
While there, the boy, Emmett Till, had been kidnapped, beaten, mutilated, shot, then dumped in a river, after he allegedly violated one of the many rules of Jim Crow society. The boy had been handsome, charismatic, a kid who appreciated a good joke. He was his mother’s only and beloved child. News about the missing boy had, in the early days, run in Black and Southern papers. But when his body was found, the differences between the human being who left Chicago and the body returned to his mother—a body she decided to share with the world via photographs published in the Black-owned Jet magazine—gave the story a power that gripped a national audience and helped galvanize critical elements of a civil rights movement that would transform the 20th century.
Now, some 67 years after the crime, Emmett Till’s story, though it never fully faded from public consciousness, is once again everywhere.
“I think part of it is pure coincidence,” says Davis Houck, a professor of Rhetorical Studies at Florida State University who has studied the Till case and its impact on public opinion; he is also a contributor to the Emmett Till Archives housed at Florida State’s library. “At one point there were seven movies or TV series in the hopper. But another chunk of it is probably not a coincidence. Maybe this is the post George Floyd world that we live in, where there is just a recognition that we need to show more of these stories, do more, care.”
January saw the airing of the ABC miniseries Women of the Movement, featuring Adrienne Warren as Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother. In March, Greenwood, Miss., officials approved plans to commission and erect a bronze statue of Till, to be installed about 10 miles from the store where Till is said to have had some type of brief interaction with a local white woman, leading to his lynching. Later in March, President Joe Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. New research into the case continues too: In June, the Amsterdam News, a Black-owned newspaper based in New York City, reported that a team that included the documentarian behind the 2005 film The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till had found a never executed arrest warrant for the white woman in the store, Carolyn Bryant Donham. (She is alive and lives in Kentucky; according to the warrant, she could not be found at the time that it was issued in 1955.)
And this Friday saw the limited release of the feature film Till, which goes into wide release Oct. 28.
“Some people have already told me, ‘Oh, it’s overkill with Emmett,’” says Devery Anderson, author of the 2015 book Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, on which much of the January miniseries was based. “Someone told me, ‘Do we need a statue? Because they have the Emmett Till memorial stuff in Sumner [Miss.] and we have plaques out and a road named after him. Do you need a statue too?’ And I said, it’s not overkill by any stretch of the imagination. It’s taken a lot to get people to listen and wake up to the extent that they have.”
It’s not that suddenly everyone wants to work on Emmett Till projects. It’s that people have been trying to do so consistently over the years. Now some of the roadblocks have come down.
Storytellers have, for years, taken bits and pieces of the Till story and included it in their narratives, says Keith Beauchamp, who served as a co-writer and producer of Till, the feature film, as well as director of that 2005 documentary, on which he worked closely with Till-Mobley before her death in 2003. For example, he says, themes and elements of To Kill A Mockingbird were extracted from the Till murder, and Till-Mobley told him that conversations she had about the case with Steven Spielberg helped to inspire some themes in E.T., which the filmmaker has described as “a minority story that stands for every minority in this country.” But attempts to tell the story more directly tended to be met with greater obstacles.
“As Black people, our stories are still deemed controversial in many ways,” says Beauchamp, who notes that other non-white Americans experience something similar with regularity too.
Read more: How Emmett Till’s Murder Changed the World
Mamie Till-Mobley tried to get a movie made about her son’s case in the late 1950s, Houck found in his research. And in fact, the infamous January 1956 Look magazine article in which the two men acquitted of Till’s kidnapping and murder at a 1955 trial confessed (in the course of an in many ways false account of what had happened) to having done it, had a Hollywood backstory too: The reporter paid the men $4,000 to gain legal clearance needed for a movie he planned to make about Till’s murder, Houck found. Till-Mobley succeeded in stopping the project. Rod Serling, famed creator of The Twilight Zone, attempted to tell the story during two of the show’s episodes. But he was forced by the network to charge the details of the tale, largely beyond easy recognition. He also wanted to make a movie. The 1960s and 1970s also brought a series of regional theater productions that dramatized the Till story. And Beauchamp, the documentary filmmaker, attempted to tell the Till story earlier himself, on a major cable network in the 1990s. That project wound up on ice and later morphed into the documentary, released on big screens in select cities and DVD.
“We’re countering hundreds and hundreds of years of racism,” says Anderson, the writer and researcher. “It kind of angers me because there’s been overkill in white stories, white historians telling history through a white perspective. If you want to talk about overkill, I could point out a million areas where we’ve sacrificed knowing our real history.”
The political situation has been largely parallel. Before the Till anti-lynching bill passed this year, similar bills had previously been introduced hundreds of times since 1900, according to the law’s primary legislative sponsor, but had failed to pass Congress.
But its passage, and all the other evidence of the enduring power of the horrifying image of what was done to Emmett Till, does not mean the United States has turned some corner in addressing racial violence.
The Emmett Till Act passed, more than six decades after that crime.
In the roughly two years since George Floyd was murdered, a bill named after him—filled with police-accountability measures—has repeatedly failed.