In his debut hit, about surviving a bad car crash, Kanye West rapped that upon learning of his broken jaw his girlfriend would be “scared as hell that her guy looked like Emmett Till,” referring to the 14-year-old boy whom white men beat and killed in Mississippi in 1955 for flirting with one of their wives.
Till’s death — and, more specifically, the photos from Till’s funeral that appeared in Jet magazine — is credited with breathing life to the modern civil rights movement.
But Yamiche Alcindor, a journalist of Haitian descent, says she and her mother, who holds two doctoral degrees, were unfamiliar with the Till story until she heard Kanye’s song and Googled the teenager’s name.
“When you realize that you can come to this country, you can have your child in AP U.S. History and not know the name Emmett Till, it tells you where we are as a society,” said Alcindor, who covers the White House for PBS NewsHour and contributes to MSNBC, responding to a question about racial progress in the 50 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis.
The role of the news media in King’s social movements is the focus of Hope & Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media, a documentary timed for release as the nation remembers King’s assassination 50 years ago Wednesday. Andrew Lack, the chairman of NBC News and a Mississippi Today co-founder, was executive producer and provided an editor’s cut of the film for a screening hosted by Mississippi Today at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Tuesday night. Alcindor joined Tom Brokaw, a veteran broadcaster who covered the civil rights movement during the 1960s, and Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba in a panel discussion following the screening.
The film begins with dashboard camera footage from the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minn., by a police officer. From there, it jumps to the scene from inside the car as Castile bled to death, captured on Facebook live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.
Interviewed in Hope & Fury, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer, and Joy Reid of MSNBC likened the live-streaming of Castile’s killing with the decision Till’s mother made to live stream her son’s death in a way by having an open-casket funeral and allowing a magazine to publish photos of his violently mangled face.
“The country is going to have to confront this. I’m not going to suffer this by myself. If this is what you’re going to do to black boys, you’re going to have to deal with,” Reid said of Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated his understanding of mass media’s power, and television news in particular, by instructing protesters to dress in their Sunday best and holding demonstrations early enough in the day so that the footage could be transported to New York in time to appear on nightly network news broadcasts. Television is also how America witnessed the splintering of the civil rights movement and the rise of the younger, more radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and its fiery leader, Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the “Black Power” rallying cry.
The media continued to play a vital role in the spread of civil rights movements by covering events such as the King and Carmichael-led March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., riots that followed King’s assassination, to the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and protests in Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Alcindor argued that the Ferguson protests, which she covered for USA Today, might not have become a national story had a gas station not been burned. The media is attracted to moments of crisis, she said. Activists in Ferguson also made wide use of social media because they believed the mainstream media focused too much on property damage and ignored the story of police brutality in the St. Louis suburb.
“When we see images that remind us of Emmett Till, when we see the stories of young people being gunned down we have to confront not only the image that we see of ourselves and the perception we have of one another, but also how the media supports getting the story out and how the media supports the confusion that exists,” said Lumumba, who participated in demonstrations in Ferguson and practiced civil rights law before becoming Jackson’s mayor.
Brokaw said the racially mixed audience at the Hope & Fury screening Tuesday is testament to some progress on the race relations front, but he also thought America would be farther along by now.
“When I think back now what it was like not just in the South but across this country from 1965 to now, we’ve certainly not made the progress I expected. Maybe I was a Kumbaya white boy who thought we’ve arrived at the Promised Land,” he said. “I thought we would be so much farther at this point for all the grief, the violence, the deaths, the sacrifices that were made.”
Several audience members expressed similar mixed emotions — they were moved by people coming together to see the film but remained disturbed by the some of the images in the movie.
Asked what he took away, 12-year-old Ibrahim Hudson, said: “Black people were misunderstood and they were punished for it. They weren’t embraced for standing up to white people. … It makes me feel mad and proud at the same time.”
Sybil Child said, “It was absolutely wonderful to see all these people here together.” But she added, “I tell you, the film just about made me sick. I felt like I needed to go to every black person in the audience and say, ‘I am sorry.’ I mean I have to apologize for every white person in here. It was very very moving.”
Contributing: Aallyah Wright and Kelsey Davis