The independent news organization of Duke University

​A falsified past, an unchanged present

Sixty years after the brutal murder of Emmett Till, Duke researcher Timothy Tyson surfaced new testimony from the woman—Carolyn Bryant—who sealed the fate of a 14-year-old schoolboy in Mississippi. Tyson reveals what most people had speculated all along: she had fabricated the entire accusation that Till had sexually assaulted her. Her words alone were enough to incite rage against Till, who was shortly thereafter abducted and murdered at the hands of Bryant’s husband and half brother.

On Aug. 21, 1955, Emmett Till arrived in the rural hamlet of Money, Mississippi all the way from Chicago’s Southside to stay with his southern relatives for the duration of the summer. He could have scarcely conceived that less than two weeks later, images of his bloodied, mutilated corpse would be plastered in magazines all across the world. His corpse, displayed for the entire world to see, would come to expose a savage system of legalized white supremacy hiding behind the rustic charm of Dixie’s cotton fields and magnolias. It demonstrated that in Jim Crow’s South, a white woman’s flimsy accusation against a black male was to be placed on a higher pedestal than the very life of a 14-year-old boy.

In 2017, looking back at the murder of Emmett Till, it is easy for us to disengage ourselves from the relevancy of such shocking historical figures and events in our contemporary society. Individuals like Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr.—all of whom were savagely slaughtered for disturbing Jim Crow—are reverently enshrined into the sainthood of the Civil Rights Movement. Such figures are recognized as historical icons who ultimately helped to bring down the foundations of de jure white supremacy in the American South. Unfortunate circumstances—such as the fact that before 1963 black undergraduate students could not even enroll at Duke—seem to remain ancient relics of a primitive past.

However, this myopic view, of strictly considering uncomfortable occurrences of our nation’s history only in the context of the past, ignores the much deeper relevancy of bygone events like the murder of Emmett Till in today’s world. The same criminal justice system that acquitted Till’s killers of all charges continues to discriminate based on skin color, with higher rates of imprisonment for convicted black men than for white men of similar felony status. Similar to how popular stereotypes of African American men shaped the image of Till as a oversexed black brute in the white Southern mind, Muslim Americans continue to be unfairly targeted due in large part to an imagined association with radical Islamist terrorism. In 2012, the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a white man helped to jumpstart the Black Lives Matter movement, much like how Till’s death galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.

The case of Emmett Till remains relevant today as it was in 1955. Till’s violent murder demonstrates how institutionalized racism and how prejudicial biases can destroy individual lives and galvanize national movements. Emmett Till should not simply be remembered as simply a relic of the past in the context of American history, but he should also be regarded as a victim of a still biased system that continues to pass preconceived judgments on minorities, regardless of their age.


Share and discuss “​A falsified past, an unchanged present” on social media.