August 28th connects three major figures and moments in the U.S. history of civil rights actions: Emmett Till’s murder, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and Barack Obama’s acceptance speech upon winning the Democractic presidential nomination.
The murder of Emmett Till sparked national organizing efforts against the practice of lynching. Till, 14, moved with his family from Chicago, Illinois to the Southern town of Money, Mississippi. The combination of oppressions in his life marked him as different in the small town of Money: he was working-class, Black, and battled visible, chronic health conditions such as polio and a pronounced stutter.
Accused of whistling at a white woman passerby, Till was forcibly kidnapped and savagely beaten, along with having one of his eyes gouged out, by his accuser’s husband, Roy Bryant and Bryant’s half-brother, J.W. Milam. He was then shot through the head and his body was tossed into the Tallahatchie River, tied with a 70-pound cotton gin wrapped in barbed wire around his torso. Till’s almost unrecognizable remains were found in the river three days later. Though they admitted guilt, Bryant and Milam were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury on September 23, 1955.
Till’s mother, Mamie Carthan Till, insisted that her son’s funeral offer an open casket so that all could see the effects of the racist brutality which lead to her son’s murder. In her book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century, Sherrilyn A. Ifill notes that more than 5,000 illegal mob lynching of Blacks took place over a seventy year period, between 1890-1960, marking a fatal legacy of racial tensions and complicit, socially-sanctioned violence toward people of color.
In 1955, civil rights activists banded together to protest the death of Till and the racially-biased treatment of his murderers at the hands of the U.S. justice system. Because of their combined efforts, protests against lynching brought national attention to the issue and lead to the eventual cessation of lynching as a socially condoned practice by the 1960s.
Eight years later, a leader emerged on a national platform to once again bring attention to the oppressions, segregation and discriminations facing Blacks in the United States. More than 200,000 civil rights supporters gathered on August 28, 1966 for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech with powerful rhetoric and the gusto of a Baptist sermon.
The March on Washington placed much-needed pressure on then-President Kennedy to advance and promote civil rights legislation in Congress; that same year, King was also named TIME magazine’s Man of the Year. King’s inspiring vision and hopes for the future of people of color in the U.S. are commemorated long after they were spoken: many children in the U.S. memorize the speech in school, while Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated as a Federal holiday each year on King’s birthday, January 15th.
King’s vision of one nation, united in a cohesive body of men and women of all races, did not predict the image of post-racial America which some insist exists today. Many public figures in the media might falsely assume that racism in America ended following the efforts of the civil rights movement and the supposed emergence of “colorblind” equality. But in his speech, it was King who noted:
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”
The words of King undoubtedly contributed to a national consciousness of racism and the need for equality in America, irrespective of race or ethnicity. Without his efforts, it is doubtful that the third event in this chain of civil rights leadership and activism would have come to pass.
On August 28, 2008, Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States. Running on a campaign with slogans promising Hope and Change, Obama’s broadcast from Denver, Colorado referenced King’s speech and the implications of his legacy on the first-ever nomination of a person of color for President by one of the two leading political parties:
“…It is that American spirit – that American promise – that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend… And it is that promise that forty five years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream. The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things. They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead – people of every creed and color, from every walk of life – is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one.”
The lives of these three men are part of a centuries-long struggle for racial equality in all parts of American life. Today, Americans continue to fight the continually destructive forces of racism, such as the treatment of people of color in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, another important anniversary which will be commemorated at the end of this month. Yet it is with great hope and solidarity that anti-racist activism in the U.S. moves forward, bringing attention to injustices while highlighting important conversations about race to the American public.