I am surprised that when I make this reference, multiple generations of Americans, White and Black, know what I mean. For those who don’t: Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black youth who dared to say something sassy to an adult White woman in Mississippi in August 1955. For this “crime,” Till was abducted, tortured, shot in the head and dumped in a river by two White men who were later acquitted by an all-White Mississippi jury.
At Till’s funeral, his mother insisted on an open casket for her son, to in effect say to the world, “Look what they did to my boy.” Photographs of Till’s body, dressed in a suit but with a bloated, mutilated head and face, became an international spectacle, burned into the conscience of anyone who saw them. The images helped spark the civil rights movement, including the Montgomery bus boycott that began three months later in December 1955. Time magazine called the image of Till’s body one of the 100 “most influential photos of all time.”
I lack the moral standing to tell a parent to accept and approve, for the greater good, the public display of photos of his or her dead child. Only they can judge the additional weight that doing so would place on them, at a time when they are already struggling with unimaginable grief. Nor do I suggest the release of any images in particular. But something graphic is required to awaken the public to the real horror of these repeated tragedies. Robb Elementary School in Uvalde is a crime scene. If there were a case to go to trial, the prosecution would have to present publicly the shocking evidence of guilt. Put another way: Why must innocent schoolchildren, for the rest of their lives, carry the vivid memories of the executions of their teachers and classmates, while federal and state lawmakers (and the adult constituents who elect them) are spared?
Certain images do more than speak a thousand words. Some actually reveal to us what no words can adequately convey. Images have the capacity to shock the conscience into action, galvanize a population, and alter the course of history. Recall the the film of dogs and firehoses turned on Black demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala. (1963); the TV news footage of Alabama cavalry beating civil rights marchers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge (1965); the photo of a South Vietnamese police chief executing the Viet Cong fighter with a gunshot to the head (1968); the image of the screaming, naked “Napalm Girl” in South Vietnam (1972); the grainy images of LAPD officers beating Rodney King (1991); and the cellphone video of police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck (2020). Conversely, imagine if there had been no video of Floyd’s killing, leaving us with the initial Minneapolis police report, which was headed simply, “Man dies after medical incident during police interaction.”
With each mass shooting, I mourn for the victims, and I lament our democracy’s inability to do anything about this ongoing violence. Rarely has the answer to a major national problem been so obvious, yet so politically unobtainable. With each shooting, the particular circumstances and the shooter’s character and motives vary, but the common problem running through all these events is the ease with which dangerous individuals in this country can gain access to guns and ammunition. No constitutional, legal or human right is absolute. I cherish my driver’s license, but I do not fear that I will lose it if, in reaction to a spate of DUI deaths, the state cracks down on drunken driving. Consistent with the Second Amendment, and the freedom of a responsible adult to keep and bear arms, we can and must do more to limit the distribution of guns in the United States.
I am convinced that part of the reason we’ve been unable to do this is because the public and the politicians who purport to represent them lack a vivid understanding of the price being paid. The horror has been kept under wraps. To truly judge the trade-offs of the status quo, the death and destruction must be honesty revealed. We need a game changer. We need an Emmett Till moment.