The Murder Of Emmett Till, Freedom Rides, And The March On Washington

The murder of Emmett Till was a brutal act that set off many other civil rights acts throughout America. For years following this great injustice, monumental movements towards ending segregation occurred. Emmett Till was a 14 year old boy who grew up in a working class neighborhood in Chicago. In late August 1955, Till went to Money, Mississippi to visit his family, and just a few days later was horrifically murdered. His mother refused to accept what had been done to her son, having an open casket funeral, where a photograph was taken of his bashed in face. This photograph showing off what had been done went viral, and change began. This heinous act was one of many during that time period, but the picture going viral and the timing of it all was the perfect storm. In this paper, then, I will be highlighting how Emmett Tills murder sparked the Freedom Rides, and eventually the March on Washington. 

Emmett Tills murder was senseless, and an act of true racism. While visiting his family in Money, Mississippi, he and his cousins went into a convenience store, this is where it all started. Till allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, one of the owners of the store, and a white lady. Upon hearing this news, Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and her brother-in-law J.W. Milam kidnapped Emmett and proceeded to beat him to the point of severe disfigurement, shoot him, and finally, attach a large metal fan around his neck using barbed wire, and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. Once his body was found floating in the river, the only way he was able to be identified was by a ring that his mother gave him. Later, in his murder trial, even though Wright, the man he was staying with, told the jury that he witnessed Roy and J.W. take Emmett out of his house, the jury only deliberated for 67 minutes before acquitting the pair of all charges. The jury even said that it wouldn’t have taken that long, but they “stopped to get pop”. Little did everyone know, this action was not the end, and these events would carry on making history.

In November, civil rights activist TRM Howard spoke about what had happened to Till, and among the crowd listening in was Rosa Parks. Days later, she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, a while after that when asked about why, she said “I thought of Emmett Till, and when the bus driver ordered me to move to the back, I just couldn’t move.” Racial segregation on public transportation had been against the law since November 25th 1955, with the Interstate Commerce Commission ruling that said “the disadvantages to a traveler who is assigned accommodations or facilities so designated as to imply his inferiority solely because of his race must be regarded under present conditions as unreasonable.” However, that didn’t stop Rosa Parks from being arrested on December 1st 1955 for her actions. In 1960, the Supreme court finally ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation “in the facilities provided for interstate travelers, such as bus terminals, restaurants, and restrooms, was also unconstitutional.” This was a large step in the right direction, and a step that would soon be tested. 

Later in 1961, what Rosa parks had started came to a head with freedom riders. This group of interracial activists pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable and tested the new ruling against segregation. The first two buses that were used in the freedom rides left from Washington D.C. on May 4th 1961, and were heading into New Orleans, Louisiana. The groups didn’t encounter any major acts of violence until they reached South Carolina, where two riders were beaten, and one was arrested for using a whites-only bathroom. This event however sparked the communities interest, and earned the freedom riders a meeting with Martin Luther King, among other civil rights activists. During this meeting, King told a reporter that was covering the meeting, “You will never make it through Alabama.” This quote foreshadowed the next events that would transpire. Riding on a greyhound bus into Alabama, the bus stopped to repair a tire, when they stopped, an angry white mob flooded the doors of the bus. The mob pelted the bus with rocks and other damaging objects, and then threw a firebomb inside. While the mob blocked the doors, someone was heard yelling “burn them alive”, among other expletives. When the other bus arrived at its destination, it was also violently attacked, and this attack garnered national attention. More riders took up the cause, and by November of that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally applied force behind the laws prohibiting segregation on public transportation. 

Then, in 1963, the March on Washington began. This event was a fight for equal rights with jobs and freedom. More than 200,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in a peaceful protest, asking for something that they were rightfully owed. This protest was a long time coming, and had many events that lead up to it. In 1941, A. Phillip Randolph started the idea to march for rights, he organized a march after noticing that many people of color were unable to find employment, this march however, was cancelled once President Roosevelt and Randolph were able to work out a deal, they created the Fair Employment Practice Committee, however just a few years later this committee was dissolved. Civil rights activists had also gathered together at the Lincoln Memorial a few years earlier, for a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957, and again in October 1958 for a Youth March for Integrated Schools. Once these marches clearly still didn’t get the point across, the March on Washington began. At this event, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech, “I Had a Dream”. In the New York Times, they published their goals for the march, they were: 

“a comprehensive civil rights bill” that would do away with segregated public accommodations; “protection of the right to vote”; mechanisms for seeking redress of violations of constitutional rights; “desegregation of all public schools in 1963”; a massive federal works program “to train and place unemployed workers”; and “a Federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination in all employment”.

Ultimately, this civil rights event was successful. It resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into becoming a law by President Johnson on July 2nd. This law allowed integration in schools and public facilities, and prohibited discrimination in public places and in the workplace. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was also signed into place by President Johnson on August 6th. It put a stop to the discriminatory voting regulations that had been previously put into place predominantly in southern states, such as literacy tests being required before being allowed to vote.

While all of these events were greatly influential and helped put a stop to a lot of violence against people of color, these issues are still more prevalent in today's day and age than we all may have thought. While violence against one another in general has been illegal for a while, and people of color are included in this law, some things have been overlooked. Lynching, the official name for how Emmett Till was murdered, just became a federal hate crime on February 26th, 2020. The act is named the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, after 14yo Emmett Till. This is a great gesture, but almost seems empty. It cannot help the countless people that suffered in the past via lynching due to our country’s inability to realize we needed this law sooner rather than later, but it is a good thing that it is at least finally realized and created in order to stop anything that may happen in the future. 

16 December 2021
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