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Remembering Emmett Till and the Spark that Lit the Civil Rights Movement

March 20, 2012 | By Federal/State Partnership Staff

This story is more than one about the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 in the Mississippi delta, the murder that sparked the Civil Rights Movement. It is also the story of a small grant awarded by the Mississippi Humanities Council that has evolved into a traveling exhibition, creation of the Mississippi Civil Rights Trail, and NEH funded summer seminars about the Mississippi Delta.

Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, believes that the "Emmett Till story is more than the brutal murder of a 14 year old African American boy in the Mississippi Delta in  the 1950s. In some ways it is a theological story of redemption. It is the story of a spark that ignited the fires of the  Civil Rights Movement and changed America."

The Mississippi Humanities Council gave a mini grant to Delta State University for an oral history project to record local people about the Till kidnapping and murder. The research that this grant began grew into an exhibition that has traveled around the country over the last five years. In 2011, during the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, the Emmett Till project resulted in the dedication of the  first of many historical markers of the Mississippi Civil Rights Trail, located in Money, MS, near where young Till was abducted. This summer Luther Brown will host the third NEH Landmarks Teacher Workshop about the Mississippi Delta in June and July at Delta State University.

Barbara Carpenter, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, writes that Luther Brown and Henry Outlaw, the scholars who have pursued and developed these projects along with Emily Weaver, “‘really believe that it was the MHC grant that started the whole thing. Who knows where we would be today if MHC had not supported Henry’s original oral history project. [The Council's] support planted the seed ...’”

The NEH on the Road exhibition "For All the World to See" presents the visual aspects of the civil rights movement and takes its title from Emmett Till's mother's insistence that her son's casket to be open at his funeral so that all could witness the brutality of his murder: “Let the world see what I’ve seen.”