A Look at America’s Continual Racism: The Case of Emmett Till (by Pamela Chiemela Diala)

Title: A Look at America’s Continual Racism: The Case of Emmett Till

STANDARDS: Intended Grade Level: 11-12 Grade
Reading Standards

1) Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

2) Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event.

3) Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence.

OVERVIEW: The purpose of this lesson is to help students understand the racial tension of the 1950s civil right era that led to the death of 14-year old Emmett Till. The examination of the National Administrative Committee’s memo on behalf of Communist Party USA, along with a song about the death of Emmett Till will guide students in critically evaluating the role of racism in the Deep South, the power of a social movement and where America stands today in regards to justice and equality.

FRAMEWORK: Students will analyze two sources: a primary source article and a secondary source song. Students will use the song and the article to shape their understanding of the despair and sadness many felt with the death of Emmett Till and how these emotions galvanized many to action. Students will discuss with their peers their understanding of the world in the 1950s and what that world looked like to Emmett Till. Have we made any progress from the Mississippi of the 1860s, when the Ku Klux Klan was part of a Negro’s daily life? Students will try to analyze the changes we have seen from 1860s to 1950s to the present. How has racism and white supremacy changed and transformed over time? The students will then connect this understanding to the murder of Emmett to how many were determined to realize through action, the maturity that Till was unnaturally denied.

ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING: Students will understand how the murder of a 14-year old boy galvanized the emerging civil rights movement and in doing so, will see that 50 years after the Brown V. Board and the Till case, we still live in a world where racism and bigotry continue to shake and destroy the lives of African Americans.


1) What did the death of Emmett Till mean in 1955 to the Negro people in the Deep South and how did they respond?
2) Till’s death sparked the slogan “no justice, no peace.” What do those words mean, how did it call people for action and in particular, disruption?
3) How did Till’s death change the way that numerous organizations, particularly Communist Party USA, approached the idea of freedom and equality?
4) What was the significance of Emmett Till’s death on race relations in America?
5) Today, we still live in a world filled with racial tensions. Have we made progress? How do people today respond to violence and injustice?


White Supremacy (noun): An ideology and formal political system that believes in the natural superiority of what is understood to be the “white race.”

Movement (noun): A course or series of actions and endeavors on the part of a group of people working towards a shared political, social or artistic goal.

Communist Party USA (noun): Established in 1919, for the first half of the 20th century, the Communist Party was a highly influential force in various struggles for democratic rights. They opposed racism and fought for integration in workplaces and communities during the height of the Jim Crow period of U.S. racial segregation.

INTRODUCTION: In August of 1955, a young boy was brutally murdered by two white men while visiting family in Mississippi. Emmett Till, 14 years old at the time, violated a longstanding unwritten law, a social taboo about conduct between blacks and whites in the south by whistling at a white woman in a grocery store. The brutality of his lynching and the haste acquittal of his murderers by an all-white jury spurred a fury that would prove critical in the mobilization of black resistance to white racism in the Deep South.

Emmett Till’s death was a bit unique, for the year was 1955, less than a year and a half after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools and threatened the rigid southern color line. At the time of the Brown decision, white radicals were quick to condemn the Supreme Court judges for their lack of assertiveness in defending the racial integrity, culture, creative genius, and the advanced civilization of the white race. The America that Emmett Till inhabited in 1955 was one where freedom for some was predicated on a lack of freedom for others. While Till’s life ended a few short months before the Black Freedom Struggle declared a war against racial injustice with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for many scholars, the moment of decision of the Boycott for some Montgomery Blacks came with the August lynching of Till.

After Emmett Till’s death, the Black leaders of the time, led by Communist Party USA, spoke of the need for change, to create a movement that raises fundamental issues of great importance to the Negro people to fight for democracy and peace. These leaders saw the need for people, especially the Negroes to mobilize themselves and change the structure of the institution of racism. Many like Michigan Representative Charles Diggs spoke of how atrocities like that of Till’s death, like a cancer, eat away at the core of Black dignity creating frustrations and bitterness. He, along with other Negro leaders of the time, spoke of the need to force the Eisenhower administration to take greater action pass anti-lynch and other civil rights legislation without delay. Their wish was eventually answered, decades later. Today, while justice for Till was denied back in 1955, his death led to the creation of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2008, which created a cold case unit at the Justice Department to investigate unsolved civil rights murders that occurred before 1970.


1) Emmett Till Memo from the Eisenhower Presidential Library

2) “City Called Heaven” performed by Mahalia Jackson

3) Lyrics sheet for “City Called Heaven”


1) Start with a lecture based on the background information presented earlier in this Lesson Plan.

2) Pass out the music sheet. Students will then be asked to have a blank sheet of paper in front of them. Before playing the YouTube video of Mahalia Jackson singing “City Called Heaven,” briefly explain to students that Mahalia Jackson was known as the Queen of Gospel and was passionately involved in the Civil Rights Movement with her power of song. Then play the song and have the students write down thoughts as the song is played. Afterwards, have students in groups of 3-5 discuss the song and their understanding of it.

Regroup and have the students focus on the following lines: (video until 1:35)

I am an old pilgrim of sorrow
And I’m left in this whole wide world
I’m left in this world alone
I have no hope, but tomorrow, Lord
But I’m trying to make a heaven, Lord, My home.

Have a class discussion in which students analyze what the words above tell them about the era in which Emmett Till lived.

3) Students will then be handed the “Till Memo” from the Eisenhower Presidential Library to analyze. They should annotate the article with questions, concerns and reactions individually. With the entire class, they will then discuss the words in the memo that called for action and mobilization, particularly the mobilization of the Negro people.

4) Students will then analyze the role that racism plays in America today. The Emmett Till case happened after the decisive Brown V. Board decision. Have we made any progress? Students will finally analyze what role the Till Memo will play in today’s media in regards to current issues in Ferguson and Baltimore. Are we in a post racist world or has the fight for civil rights merely transformed?


Metress, Christopher. “No Justice, No Peace”: The Figure of Emmett Till in African American Literature. MELUS Vol. 28, No. 1, Multi-Ethnic Literatures and the Idea of Social Justice (spring, 2003), pp. 87-103

Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free, 1988. Print.

Wright, Simeon, Jonathan Hahn, and Herb Boyd. Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till. Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill, 2010. Print.

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