How Photos Became Icon of Civil Rights Movement

Today is the 50th anniversary of the killing, an occasion for a new documentary film, re-examinations of the story in the news media and updates on the progress of a reopened investigation. The Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper in Jackson, Miss., reported last week, for example, that the body federal agents exhumed from Emmett's grave near Chicago in June had been positively identified through DNA. But little has been said about the photographs of Emmett taken at his open-coffin viewing, which were first published nationally in Jet magazine and shunned by mainstream news organizations but have since become iconic, textbook images of the Jim Crow era.

In "Eyes on the Prize," the PBS documentary on civil rights, Charles Diggs, a former congressman from Detroit, called the Jet photographs "probably one of the greatest media products in the last 40 or 50 years, because that picture stimulated a lot of anger on the part of blacks all over the country."

Chris Metress, the editor of "The Lynching of Emmett Till," a book that includes contemporary news accounts of the killing and trial, said: "You get testimony from white people coming of age at the time about how the case affected them, but you don't get them testifying, like countless blacks, that the Jet photo had this transformative effect on them, altering the way they felt about themselves and their vulnerabilities and the dangers they would be facing in the civil rights movement. Because white people didn't read Jet."

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