First, I think there are some very real differences in these two instances of violence against young black Chicagoans and they shouldn’t be dismissed. The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 was carried out by private citizens which, in some sense, make it altogether different from the McDonald shooting. Despite such difference in the circumstances of these young men’s deaths, there are startling parallels. To begin, the murder of Chicagoan Emmett Till in 1955 was a catalyst for and call to action, just as the Laquan McDonald shooting was at the close of 2015. Present in both, in my estimation, is the threat that black male bodies pose across time as both cases seem to speak to a need to make the body submit in violent ways. Also present in both are the ways that the media intervened to play a significant role in making these young men’s deaths available for public consumption and contemplation. In Till’s case, his mother made an intentional decision to display her child’s brutalized body as testament to the racialized violence rampant throughout the nation – violence that often resulted in private pain for families and no repercussions for the perpetrators. It is the image of Emmett Till accessed in newspapers, magazines, and the like that made his death more than just another private act of what amounted to repeated and sanctioned terrorization of African Americans in the South.
Fast forward to 2015 and once again it is the image of the deadly encounter between Laquan McDonald and police that bears witness, like Till’s body, to a frequently spoken but often unseen reality of the black experience in the United States — violent interaction with the police. Film footage of the McDonald shooting, as well as other recent incidents, intersects with historical narratives and images of violence against black bodies exacted by police and others. As in the Till case, images of the McDonald shooting (and their repeated consumption) serve as evidence of that reality in a way verbal accounts fail. In both instances, there is also the problem of competing and conflicting readings of the violated body. Not everyone empathized with the plight of the young Chicagoan in 1955, as is the case in the McDonald shooting.
It’s unclear whether the Till legacy provides a path forward. Unfortunately, decades later his story continues to resonate not just because his murder helped sparked the modern civil rights movement but because similar incidents continue to happen. His story, all these years later, continues to highlight the vulnerability of black bodies, especially young black bodies. If the Till story offers anything at this present moment, given the different circumstances present in these two incidents, it is that protecting black bodies requires constant vigilance. It requires speaking out, as Emmett’s mother did, regardless of whether the prevailing power structures want to hear what you have to say. And, it requires using the image(s) of these bodies to demand justice rather than simply consuming them as things of curiosity and continued violation.
Joy Bivins is director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum where she has collaborated on diverse exhibition projects such as Teen Chicago; the Chicago installation of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America; Facing Freedom in America; Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography; and Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair. Bivins has taught courses on museum interpretation and education at the School of the Art Institute Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago and has served as a panel presenter at the annual meetings of the American Alliance of Museums, Association of African American Museums, and the Costume Colloquium in Florence, Italy. She is co-editor of and contributor to the Inspiring Beauty catalog and has written pieces for the Journal of American History, Chicago History, and NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art. A native Chicagoan, Ms. Bivins received her Bachelor’s degree in Afroamerican Studies and History from the University of Michigan and earned a Master’s degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University.