Four words. That’s all it takes to set history in motion.
For many Americans, the four words most associated with the civil rights movement have been “I have a dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King’s visionary incantation of hope during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
Eight years earlier, also on August 28, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered after a white woman in rural Mississippi told her husband that he had grabbed her and made sexual advances.
Many teachers in the United States include a lesson on Emmett Till to introduce the civil rights movement. Many make it part of their Black History Month plans. This year, it’s time to modify the lesson.
Last week, the world learned that the woman’s claim was a lie from the get-go. A new book, by Duke University senior research scholar Timothy B. Tyson, reveals that Carolyn Bryant, the woman whose accusations led her husband and brother-in-law to kidnap, torture and murder Till, admitted that none of it was true.
Another four words. “That part’s not true.”
Although accounts of what exactly transpired between Till and Bryant vary considerably—some say Till said, “Bye, baby” and touched her hand, others that he wolf-whistled, and still others that it wasn’t a whistle but a lisp—most classroom versions make the point that whatever Till did was an inadvertent affront to the Southern code of white supremacy. In a way, they blame the victim. If only he had understood just how Mississippi worked. If only he had known he wasn’t supposed to look a white person in the eyes. If only he had known he couldn’t talk at all to a white woman.
But now we know that it was all a lie. Whatever did happen in that store in Money, Mississippi, the story Bryant told to her husband Roy Bryant that day—and later in the courtroom where he and his half-brother J.W. Milam were eventually acquitted—was a lie.
It’s tempting to see this as a final, sad coda to a 60-year-old story. I think, though, it’s an important and timely addition to any lesson on Emmett Till—and it should invite students to consider some deep questions. One, certainly, is about how history’s stories get told and by whom and what parts go unsaid; many accounts of the case include discussion of what actually happened in the store. Should those accounts be edited out, and the discussion focus more on the ways violence was used to enforce both gender and racial control under the system of white supremacy? What about culpability? Shaun King, a civil rights activist and writer for New York’s Daily News, argues that justice shouldn’t have an expiration date, and that 82-year-old Carolyn Bryant should be charged with perjury.
Most important, the deepest discussion should be about the power of words and the profound dangers that loom when people act extra-legally and without ascertaining the facts. Emmett Till’s death was a lynching—vigilante justice—that resulted from a lie. The lie was accepted because it confirmed what Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—and the all-white jury that acquitted them—already believed about black males: that they preyed on white women. And they believed it even though the alleged perpetrator was a child. In a culture that trusted the word of a white person over that of any person of color, it was unthinkable to question the accusation, and there was no need, at least in the killers’ minds, to submit to a system of laws.
This new development in an old case is a timely opportunity to open up discussion about our most essential democratic values, including rejection of violence, equality before the law and a system that supports the questioning of “facts.”
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.