Chicago History | Fall 2005

Page 34

Emmett Till’s Day in Court JOY L. BIVINS

Franklin McMahon’s courtroom drawings record the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement.


n September 1955, Chicago-based artist Franklin McMahon traveled to Sumner, Mississippi, on his first assignment for Life magazine. There McMahon documented what he since has termed the “trial of the year”—that of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam for the murder of Chicago teenager Emmett Till. For four days, McMahon sketched the critical moments and principal players of the courtroom drama. Life published a selection of his work the following month. The Chicago Historical Society acquired McMahon’s courtroom drawings in 2004.

Joy L. Bivins, a curator at the Chicago Historical Society, curated the exhibition, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, which was displayed at CHS June 4–December 4, 2005.

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The story of Emmett Louis Till, retold many times over the past fifty years, is by now familiar. During the summer of 1955, while on a trip to visit family in Mississippi, the fourteen-year-old Chicagoan was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Till’s fate echoed that of thousands of African Americans lynched in the decades following Reconstruction. Unlike many of those victims, however, Emmett Till’s murder received extensive media coverage and public outrage. His murder helped expose the South’s harsh and violent racial codes, as well as the pain inflicted upon the victims’ families and communities. Through the efforts of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, much is also known about Emmett’s life, not just his violent death. Born at Cook County Hospital on July 25, 1941, to Mamie and Louis Till, Emmett spent his earliest years in the close-knit community of Argo, a southwest suburb of Chicago. Under the watchful eyes of his doting mother and grandmother, Emmett, or “Bo” as his family called him, grew to be a healthy and active young man despite a polio diagnosis at the age of six. Emmett and his mother eventually moved to Chicago’s South Side.

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