The power of moral revulsion

How photos of Emmett Till's brutalized body helped launch the civil rights movement

Kneeling police officers.
(Image credit: EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images)

This is the editor's letter in the latest issue of the The Week magazine.

In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago was visiting family in Mississippi when he was kidnapped by a group of white men who accused him of flirting with a white woman. They beat him bloody, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, mutilated his body, and dumped it in the Tallahatchie River. (The men were later acquitted.) His mother chose to have an open-casket viewing, and to let Jet, an ­African-­American magazine, photograph her son's brutalized remains. "It forced America to see — for the first time — what American racism actually looked like," said Benjamin Saulsberry, director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Mississippi. That image, and the shame and disgust it evoked, launched the civil rights era. Years of sit-ins, protests, and confrontations with police finally toppled Jim Crow segregation, and culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And now, after Americans watched a kneeling white police officer nonchalantly crush the life out of George Floyd, we've come to another Emmett Till moment — a reckoning.

The passionate, multiracial protests that have filled the streets of more than 1,000 U.S. cities and towns will not end racism. But as Mahatma Gandhi taught, shame and moral revulsion can be powerful weapons against oppression. In the past week, we have seen police chiefs taking a knee with Black Lives Matter protesters. Cities and Congress are moving toward major reform of policing. A near-insurrection broke out among current and retired generals after President Trump sought to bring in active-duty troops to "dominate" the protesters, à la Tiananmen Square. Confederate statues and flags are finally coming down. In a Monmouth University poll, 76 percent of Americans called racism "a big problem" in the U.S. — up 26 points since 2015. No one can unsee the knee on George Floyd's neck, or unhear his cry, "I can't breathe." Change is slow, and change is wrenching, but change is coming.

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