Medill Associate Professor Christopher Benson discussed the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and its significance to the contemporary discourse of race in America in a webinar hosted by the Northwestern Alumni Association Monday afternoon.
“The Emmett Till story is ultimately about more than race and racism,” Benson said. “It’s about power in America and about how we’ve come to allocate power in society.”
Benson, a journalist and lawyer, co-authored Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America with Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother. The book gives an account of the lynching of Till and its significance to the Civil Rights Movement. Till, a 14-year-old boy, was abducted, tortured and killed after being accused of whistling at a white woman in a grocery store in Mississippi in 1955.
The Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated schools and deemed Jim Crow laws unconstitutional, was met with anxiety and backlash from white people in the south, according to Benson. They felt threatened by the prospect of equality, he said, fearing that Black people would soon replace them at the top of the American power structure. In Till’s case, this hostility escalated to violence and murder.
“In the contemporary moment, there are people who feel as threatened, if not more threatened, than they did in 1955,” Benson said.
He explained that the American power structure is too often posited as a pyramid, with only enough room at the top for a few.
“We’re too used to playing this zero-sum game in this country, where ‘I can only advance if you get pushed back,’” Benson said.
Post-mortem photos of Till were included in Benson’s presentation to make clear the deadly consequences of this zero-sum game, a concept in game theory where a participant's wins equal the other’s losses. Benson’s intention in including the photos, however, was to illustrate a turning point that occurred in documenting atrocities against Black people.
“In the course of history, even the imagery of racial oppression was owned by white people,” Benson said, explaining that lynching photography was used to demonstrate white control over Black bodies. “In this case, you have the Black press publishing an image that nobody ever would have published before. It takes ownership of the image and, in effect, flips that script on the story of Black power and white power.”
Benson emphasized the significance of this imagery in telling the story of racial oppression, connecting the images of Till to the video of George Floyd’s killing this past summer.
“The really chilling part of this to me is to see the officer there, looking into the camera with an expression that says, ‘Well, what you going to do about it?’” Benson said. “That demonstrates a part of the challenge that we still have, to illustrate for the world what the power of white authority really means and what it means in the case of the dehumanization and ultimately the deaths of people of color.”
Benson stressed the importance of incorporating more sociological vocabulary into media coverage to better describe the power dynamics at play in America. It is also necessary, he said, to find stories that humanize difference, rather than portray it as a threat.
“This is an American story,” Benson said. “It helps us understand the challenges we face now in trying to show that our movement toward full equality in this country is a movement that benefits the entire country. We all need to understand that, and we all need to take part in what moves forward.”
Thumbnail: Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Mamie Till-Mobley