Time in the age of the Coronavirus and #BlackLivesMatter: a dossier    

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Social media and continuity in the Black freedom struggle

Few would deny the relationship between images of Black death and Black community activism. Contemporary Black protest has in many ways been instigated by the rise of popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Activists and other social media users have used these platforms to make visible the recurring instances of police brutality and racial injustice, further dispelling the myth of post-racialism. Historically, images have played a central role in the Black Freedom Struggle, and visuals of Black death and Black protestors being beaten by police and white vigilantes galvanized Black communities and sometimes garnered support from white liberals. These types of images have functioned as a catalyst for Black activism and larger sociopolitical movements for racial justice. This is reflected by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Emmett Till with his mother Mamie Till. Jet Magazine, Sept. 15, 1955

The relationship between images of Black death and community activism is not a new phenomenon. In late August of 1955, the body of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was discovered in the Tallahatchie River. Till was viciously beaten and killed a group of white men for allegedly flirting with Carolyn Bryant, the clerk at Bryant Grocery. Despite Till’s badly disfigured body, Mamie Till insisted on having an open casket funeral for her son, stating “Let the people see what they did to my boy.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] Not only did more than a thousand people attend Till’s funeral service, but pictures of the boy’s unrecognizable body circulated throughout the media, especially the Chicago Defender which was one of the largest Black newspapers in the country at the time.[2]

Mamie Till viewing her son’s body. Jet Magazine, Sept. 15, 1955

Other notable Black newspapers and media included the Los Angeles Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune, the Pittsburg Courier, and Jet and Ebony magazine. It was through most of these sources, especially Jet, that images of Till’s death were circulated. The infamous photograph of Till lying in his casket was published by Jet magazine and reached millions of people, including foreign adversaries.[3] This significantly undermined the U.S.’s moral authority in the midst of the Cold War. Cora Patton, president of Chicago’s local NAACP alluded to this when she spoke of Till’s trial saying, “The eyes of the world are on the trial. It’s not going to help the United States’ situation in Europe and Asia if a fair and just trial is not held.”[4]

Images of Till’s body, coupled with the acquittal of those responsible for his death, galvanized Black communities in Chicago and throughout the South. Scholars such as Timothy Tyson have even suggested that Till’s murder was the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. Writing in 1955, journalist Carl Hirsch echoed this stating, “People everywhere are joining to fight because of the way Emmett Till died – but also because of the way he was forced to live.”[5] In the weeks after Till’s murder, NAACP headquarters reported that an overwhelming amount people “have been prompted to act by the horror of the anti-Negro crime,” and that many contributed money or became official members of the NAACP, which at the time was the leading civil rights organization in the country.[6] The Chicago branch of the NAACP held its largest civil rights mass meeting at the Metropolitan Community Church where ten thousand people gathered to protest the killing of Till along with ongoing issues of racial injustice throughout the country.[7] As a result, resolutions were passed condemning anti-Black violence in both Chicago and Mississippi.[8] The NAACP also partnered with other church, civil, and labor organizations like the United Automobile Workers to plan what the Chicago Defender referred to as a “nation-wide civil rights mobilization” in the wake of Till’s murder to pressure federal officials to draft legislation protecting the civil and human rights of Black Americans.[9]

J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant (with Carolyn Bryant) celebrating their acquittal by an all-white jury for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. Associated Press

Sixty-five years later, the centrality of images and the circulation of information is reflected by the Black Lives Matter Movement. For instance, when seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, the movement for Black lives was ignited. The movement gained national political momentum after the murders of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014. After videos of Eric Garner’s murder began to circulate on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, a series of protests emerged throughout the country, especially on college campuses. A similar course of action unfolded in 2020 after videos surfaced of George Floyd, an unarmed and non-resisting Black man, being choked to death by officer Derek Chauvin. Protests were compounded following the acquittal of the officers responsible for breaking into the home of Breonna Taylor—a 26-year-old healthcare worker—and killing her in sleep.

Collective action and widescale campaigns for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murder demonstrate the ongoing connection between images of Black death and community protest. Just like in 1955 with the killing of Emmett Till, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 reveal the ways in which images and the rapid spread of information has evolved. During the Civil Rights Movement, images and the circulation of information was largely a product of the Black media. Today, social media has made the all-too-common unjustified killings of unarmed Black people immediately visible on platforms like TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Black protestors have used these images, both historically and contemporarily, as a weapon to mobilize communities and build multicultural coalitions around issues of race and racial injustice.

Hundreds of students of Oak Park and River Forest High in Oak Park, Illinois protesting in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murder. Chicago Tribune, June 4, 2020.

However, it is important to note that images alone do not lead to wide-scale protest. Black protest was and is the result of racial, political, and socioeconomic conditions that have systemically oppressed and marginalized Black communities: police brutality; the mass incarceration of Black people; inequities in housing, education, employment and much more. By mediating these underlying conditions and advocating for racial advancement, the Black press developed a racial and political conscious that made it an agent of protest, often relying on images to help galvanize Black communities.

While the killing of Emmett Till in 1955 along with the murders George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 demonstrate how images of Black death have served as a catalyst for Black protest, such imagery also makes it clear that these publicized instances of unjustified racial killings and state violence are not isolated events. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are just the most recent examples of a long list of Black men, women, and children that have been murdered by white racists. Black communities are not protesting for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor alone; they are protesting Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Richard Gardner, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, Atatiana Jefferson, Stephon Clark, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Ahmaud Arbery and many, many more, making it clear that the current movement for Black lives is part of a much longer and ongoing struggle for Black freedom and justice in the United States.


1. Timothy Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 71.  [return to text]

2. Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 14.

3. Timothy Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 75.

4. John Barrow, “Here’s a Picture of Emmett Till Painted by Those Who Knew Him,” Chicago Defender, Oct. 1, 1955.

5. Carl Hirsch, “This Was Emmett Louis Till,” Daily Worker, October 9, 1955.

6. “Emmett Till Case Gains All Out Aid for NAACP,” Los Angeles Sentinel, Sept. 29, 1955. 

7. Robert Birchman, “10,000 Jam Till Mass Meet Here,” Chicago Defender, October 8, 1955.

8. Birchman, “10,000 Jam Till Mass Meet Here,” Chicago Defender, October 8, 1955.

9. Robert Birchman, “Nation-Wide Civil Rights Mobilization in January,” Chicago Defender, Nov. 19, 1955.