Racism in American History: Emmett Till's Murder

American history is full of examples of extreme racism. Many times discrimination happens for no reason other than the color of a person's skin. An example of this obvious hatred is Emmett Till's murder that has shed light on the horrors of segregation and racism in the United States. Emmett Till, a young teenager from Chicago, visited the family in Mississippi during the month of August 1955 but was entering a state that was much more different than his hometown. Dominated by segregation, the Mississippi imposed a stiff leash on its African American population. After apparently flirting with a white woman, who was deeply disliked at this historic moment, young Till was brutally murdered. The murder of Emmett Till has become an icon for the civil rights movement and has helped start the demand for equal rights for all nationalities and races in the United States. Newspaper coverage and the murder trial galvanized a generation of young African Americans to join the Civil Rights Movement for fear that such an incident could happen to friends, family or even themselves. Many respondents in the Civil Rights History Project recall how this case profoundly affected their lives. Emmett’s mom, Mamie, was informed that her son had been found on September 1st. She refused to go to Mississippi and insisted that his son's body be sent to Chicago for burial.

Emmett's mother made the decision to hold an open coffin funeral so that everyone could 'see what they did to my boy'. Thousands came to see Emmett's battered body and his burial was delayed until 6 September to make room for the crowd. The Jet magazine, in its September 15 edition, published a photo of Emmett's battered body lying on a funeral slab. Till's mother's decision to publish this photo galvanized African Americans across the country, and her murder made the front page of newspapers around the world. The trial lasted five days and the jury spent just over an hour in deliberation: they have acquitted Bryant and Milam. Protest gatherings took place in major cities across the country after the verdict.

On January 24, 1956, a magazine published the detailed confessions of Bryant and Milam, who reportedly received $ 4000 for their stories. They admitted killing Till, knowing they could not be reprimanded for his murder due to the double risk. Bryant and Milam said they did it to set an example for Till, to warn others 'of his kind' not to go down to the South. Their stories solidified their guilt in the public mind.

A painting by Dana Schutz included in this year's Whitney Biennial in New York has been criticized for perceived racial insensitivity. The painting depicts the mutilated face of Emmett brutally murdered in 1955 after falsely claiming to have flirted with a white woman. A letter from the artist Hannah Black insists on facebook 'with the support of countless artists, writers, friends, etc. Many of whom would like to collectively clarify that the letter was a concrete invitation to dispose of Schutz's painting', at the center of the debate. Provides arguments in support of a series of statements that seem to be shared by large parts of the art world:

'It is unacceptable that a white person transmits black suffering into profit and fun, even if the practice has been normalized for a long time.'

Understanding that the discussion against her was based on the social and racial status of the artist as a white person rather than on the painting, Schutz herself tried to legitimize that she painted work on the brutal killing of a boy referring to his personal identity not as a white person but as a mother.

Last March, artist Parker Bright placed himself in front of the painting by Dana Schutz, Open Casket at the Whitney Biennial, wearing a shirt with the words 'Black Death Spectacle' scrawled on the back. The photos of his protest have become viral on social media and have triggered a chain of events that put Whitney at the center of a debate on the scorched earth on cultural appropriation, the definition of censorship, and the very role of the art institution contemporary in the Trump era. We are at a time when these problems are real, these controversies are part of public space and public discourse and museums will become places where these issues are played out. Said Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

For some institutions, this period of turmoil has led to concrete changes in politics and governance. For those museums that look from behind the lines, the desire to avoid becoming the next target of social media indignation has been a powerful incentive to diversify their curatorial staff and rethink the way in which their core values are transmitted. In conclusion, over the past year, Whitney has added three black women to her curatorial staff. Weinberg said the museum was pushing to expand its ranks well before the Schutz controversy, but the experience absolutely encouraged it to redouble its efforts.  

29 April 2022
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