Remembering Emmett Till: On the Importance of Teaching White Supremacy

Karen Johnson

Americans tend to be optimistic and hopeful, not wanting to dwell on the ugly parts of the past, particularly in history textbooks designed to help young people become “good” citizens. As W.E.B. Du Bois put it in his 1935 Black Reconstruction, "One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over." Du Bois continued, "The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth."*

Most Americans learn their history from textbooks and Hollywood films. This question of how we as Americans talk about racial violence is a central one in my gen-ed class on the history of the civil rights movement this semester.To begin our study of the black freedom struggle, my students first explored how primary and secondary school textbooks portray the civil rights movement. Textbooks tend to present the civil rights movement as a natural step in America's progress toward increasing inclusion of racial minorities in American life, which is how, not surprisingly, most of my students thought of the movement. The textbooks, and my students, mostly ignored the problem of white supremacy.

When it comes to the issues of racial violence and white supremacy in American history, textbooks are sorely lacking.  Most portray acts of racial violence as aberrations that individuals commit, which stand apart from true American ideals (Brown and Brown, "Strange Fruit Indeed).When considering the murder of Emmett Till, then, a typical textbook would highlight the individual agency – or "badness" – of J. W. Milan and Roy Bryant.Emmett Till was a 14 year old boy from Chicago who was visiting family in Money, Mississippi in the summer of 1955. While there, Till challenged racial norms by flirting with a white woman, and, even more terribly in the eyes of his killers, boasting about his white girlfriend back North. Milan and Bryant beat and shot the young Till, tied the child's body to a cotton gin fan, and threw the body in the Tallahatchie River.

As teachers, we have a responsibility to be truth-tellers, and help our students see clearly the shape of white supremacy in America. A "bad men" version of racial violence that talks about Milam and Bryant as exceptional men does not tell the truth about the ways that other white people benefited by Till's murder, because it upheld a closed society the privileged whites economically, socially, politically, and religiously. Nor does it tell the truth about the ways other blacks continued to be oppressed. Students must come to see Till's murder not as an exception in U.S. history, committed by a couple of bad men, but as one manifestation of many of the way white supremacy functioned in America at mid-century. This point is essential. If we present white supremacy as an exception, and not as a fundamental part of American culture, we fail our students because we're telling them lies. This matters particularly when we are teaching white students who, because they benefit from whiteness, have a hard time seeing race in America today.

After looking at textbook treatments of the civil rights movement, my students then delved into primary and secondary sources on Till's murder and white supremacy at mid-century. Till's murder likely would have been just another manifestation of white supremacy, awful but nationally unacknowledged, had it not been for the actions of his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, and the support of the black press. The Mississippi authorities shipped Emmett Till's body to Chicago with the directive that the casket remain closed. Bradley insisted on opening the casket, and then on having an open casket at the funeral, so the world could see what they did to her son. Because of Mamie Till Bradley's decision and the black press's support, more African Americans across the nation began to advocate for their rights. Historians will often point to Till's murder as a starting point for the "modern" civil rights movement. Milam and Bryant were not, however, convicted of murder at their trial in Mississippi. White solidarity was too strong. Students read the JET magazine articles that address the events surrounding Till's murder (available online). JET, a Chicago-based magazine of the Johnson Publishing Company, published the images of Emmett Till's disfigured face. Students also read a handful of Defender articles, and one of the speeches Mamie Till Bradley gave as part of her NAACP tour (I used the speech Houck and Dixon published in Women in the Civil Rights Movement).

We pay close attention to the ways that religion and race were connected. This context challenges the traditional (and very well done) Eyes on the Prize narrative, which offers a mainly political version of white supremacy and the movement (For the episode discussing Till, see Awakenings). Situating Milam and Bryant in this broader context also is a way to acknowledge our common humanity, because it helps us see how and why men and women could do what Milam and Bryant did.

To situate white supremacist thinking in terms of religion, students also read Charles Marsh's chapters in God's Long Summer on the faith of Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and Douglas Hudgins, the influential pastor of Jackson's First Baptist Church, who Marsh calls the "theologian of the closed society." Marsh argues that Bowers' extreme violence was supported and enabled by leaders like Hudgins, who did not commit violence, but refused to (and perhaps could not, because of his theology) use his position to speak out against the violence. While Bowers and Hudgins are exceptional in the sense that they were both leaders of their respective organizations, other scholars have explored southern segregationist religion in the pews (check out Carolyn Renée Dupont's MississippiPraying and also RustyHawkin's work. White supremacy was intertwined with Southern white religion.

Students also see how African Americans used the resources of their faith to overcome white supremacy. In this, my students found more hope. Mamie Till Bradley understood her son's death in a messianic way, and saw herself as carrying out God's will by trying to motivate the nation's African Americans to action. In a fairly typical speech at a church in Baltimore as part of her speaking tour for the NAACP in 1955, Bradley said, 
When I was talking to God and pleading with Him and asking why did You let it be my boy, it was as if He spoke to me and said: "Without the shedding of innocent blood, no cause is won."  And I turned around then and thanked God that he felt that I was worthy to have a son that was worthy to die for such a worthy cause.
Bradley was drawing on a biblical motif that situated her son as a Christ figure, a sacrifice, which would bring redemption. She believed that God chose Emmett from the creation of the world to be the sacrifice, and that her job was to make his sacrifice known (for more on the Bradley's religious motivations, which are also often overlooked, see Harold Bush's article "Continuing Bonds and Emmett Till's Mother").

As we teach our students about white supremacy, we would do them a disservice if we approached it from a purely intellectual standpoint.  Truth-telling – and helping students to come to see and understand the truth – should not just be an intellectual matter. Parker Palmer argues in The Courage to Teach that teachers and students must explore big questions not only with our minds, but with all of ourselves, which includes our emotions. Palmer has helped me embrace – and seek to foster – an emotionally charged atmosphere in the classroom. This issue is a big one that affects all of a person and a nation, and we (teachers and students) must bring all of our resources – intellect and emotion – to our encounter with the subject. My students rose to the challenge – and I know yours would too.

You can imagine how of upset most of my students were, then, after they had spent two weeks encountering white supremacy at mid-century from a variety of perspectives, when I asked them to reconsider the textbook narratives of racial violence and the civil rights movement. They felt lied to by the textbooks, and seemed to begin to see that their understanding of the world was not complete.Their frustration – and perhaps righteous anger – is just what I was hoping for.

*quoted Derrick Alridge, "The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks: An Analysis of Representations of Martin Luther King, Jr.," in Teachers College Record, no 4 (April 2006), 663.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Great post, Karen! My students often feel the same way about their high school education when confronted with the kinds of facts/stories in the main books I use, Gary Nash's Red, White and Black and Gary Gerstle's American Crucible. I wonder if high school teachers and textbooks really ARE overlooking white supremacy or if students are just not paying attention then. If the latter, then AP classes which allow students to circumvent our classrooms are especially a problem.

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