How Photos Became Icon of Civil Rights Movement
By SHAILA DEWAN
New York Times
Mutilated is the word most often used to describe the face of Emmett Till after his body was hauled out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Inhuman is more like it: melted, bloated, missing an eye, swollen so large that its patch of wiry hair looks like that of a balding old man, not a handsome, brazen 14-year-old boy.
But if the lynching of Emmett Till was, as the historian David Halberstam called it, the first great media event of the civil rights movement, it became so largely because of the photographs of that monstrous face.
Today (August 28) is the 50th anniversary of the killing, an occasion for a new documentary film, re-examinations of the story in the news media and updates on the progress of a reopened investigation. The Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper in Jackson, Miss., reported last week, for example, that the body federal agents exhumed from Emmett's grave near Chicago in June had been positively identified through DNA.
But little has been said about the photographs of Emmett taken at his open-coffin viewing, which were first published nationally in Jet magazine and shunned by mainstream news organizations but have since become iconic, textbook images of the Jim Crow era. In "Eyes on the Prize," the PBS documentary on civil rights, Charles Diggs, a former congressman from Detroit, called the Jet photographs "probably one of the greatest media products in the last 40 or 50 years, because that picture stimulated a lot of anger on the part of blacks all over the country."
Chris Metress, the editor of "The Lynching of Emmett Till," a book that includes contemporary news accounts of the killing and trial, said: "You get testimony from white people coming of age at the time about how the case affected them, but you don't get them testifying, like countless blacks, that the Jet photo had this transformative effect on them, altering the way they felt about themselves and their vulnerabilities and the dangers they would be facing in the civil rights movement. Because white people didn't read Jet."
In the summer of 1955, Emmett left his home in Chicago to visit his relatives near the Delta town of Money, Miss. Unaccustomed to the timid attitudes of his cousins toward whites, Emmett whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Four days later, the woman's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, showed up at the house of Emmett's great-uncle in the middle of the night and asked for "the boy that did the talking."
Three days later his body, beaten and shot with a .45, was found in the river with a cotton gin fan wired around his neck. Weeks after the killing, Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam were brought to trial but were acquitted by an all-white jury. The foreman said that the jury had accepted the defense argument that the body was so distorted that it could not be recognizable as Emmett Till and that it was, instead, a plant by civil rights groups. Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam later admitted their guilt in a paid interview with a magazine writer.
Emmett's mother, Mamie, insisted on seeing her son's body. Then she decided to have an open-coffin viewing. Thousands of people attended. The image of young Emmett in a straw hat was taped to the coffin for comparison. She called her later book, co-written with Christopher Benson, "Death of Innocence."
Gus Savage, editor and publisher of The American Negro: A Magazine of Protest, said he had been the first to print a photograph of Emmett Till's body, taken by a schoolteacher named Lester Davis before the public viewing, when the corpse was on a slab in the funeral home. After the magazine hit the stands and sold out, Jet followed suit, publishing two photographs in its Sept. 15, 1955 issue - almost two weeks after the open viewing. The Chicago Defender followed two days later.
No mainstream publications, even those that editorialized against the acquittal, printed the photographs, Mr. Metress said. He said the difference in coverage in the white Southern papers and black papers was obvious from the headlines: "Were never into meanness, says accused men's mother," The Commercial Appeal in Memphis reported. "Mother's tears greet son who died a martyr," The Chicago Defender replied.
When Jet's publisher, John H. Johnson, died this month, many remembered the decision to publish the pictures as one of his greatest moments.
Lawrence Aaron, a columnist for The Record, of Hackensack, N.J., recalled seeing the Jet issue in a waiting room: "On every trip to the dentist's office, we'd go through the same routine: Yes, it is for real. No, it's a Martian. Yes, it is fake. No, it can't be fake if it's printed in a magazine. Yes, it's human. No, it can't be - nobody would ever do that to a kid."
Simeon Booker, 87, the reporter for Jet, said David Jackson, now dead, had taken the coffin photos used by that magazine. "I thought at first it was a horrible looking picture." But, he said, it was the first time Jet had to reprint an issue to meet demand.
The challenges of covering the trial were so great that an editor who came to Mississippi collapsed and was sent home, Mr. Booker said.
"The first day we got there we went over to Till's grand-uncle's house and men in a car with guns forced us to stop," he said. After the trial, he said: "The first thing we had to think about was getting to Memphis and getting out of there, because we were marked men. And they put us all on one plane, the reporters and witnesses and everybody."
Mose Wright, the grand-uncle, and other blacks who testified for the prosecution left Mississippi for good.
The new documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," credited with helping persuade prosecutors to reopen the Till investigation, is rooted in the reporting of the black newspapers at the time, tracking down witnesses originally named by reporters like L. Alex Wilson and James Hicks, who continued to investigate long after the trial was over. The filmmaker, Keith Beauchamp, 34, remembers seeing the coffin photographs when he was 10, and says their effect was indelible, just as it was for blacks in the 1950's. His parents sat him down and told him the story.
"It was an educational tool that was told to many African-American men, to teach us about the racism that exists in society today," he said. "This has been a major part of our makeup growing up in this country."