A. Todd Franklin.

In the Feb. 26, 2024, edition of Truthout, Professor of Philosophy Todd Franklin was interviewed in the article “Honoring Emmett Till Means Never Looking Away From the Horror of White Supremacy.” In the piece, Franklin recalls his experience as a child learning about the death of Till, a 14-year-old boy who was murdered by two white men in Money, Miss., in 1955 after a white woman accused him of harassing her in a grocery store.

Franklin also talks about how he integrates the story of Emmett Till into his teaching and shares a poignant account of a talk he gave years later at Hamilton when his own son was 14.

Here are some excerpts from the article by George Yancy, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University:

Yancy: How were you personally impacted once you found out about the killing of Emmett Till? How did that knowledge shape how you began to see yourself as a young Black male?

Franklin: In many ways, it’s my own personal story that served as the basis for my pedagogy. [My] first introduction to the murder of Emmett Till was an old Jet magazine that I discovered when I was no more than 10 years old. At the time of the murder, Jet covered the event and its aftermath extensively; and in doing so, it published a host of images of Emmett as a happy young boy with his mother and of the horrific and grotesque state of his corpse as it lay on display just prior to and during his funeral. Like Emmett, I was a young Black boy who was his mother’s only child — and seeing someone who looked just like me and who was socially positioned just like me scared the hell out of me. It was right then and there that racism became real to me and much of my adult life has been devoted to addressing the ways in which racism proves so pernicious.

Yancy: Discovering that picture of Emmett Till in Jet is telling. … Discuss how you understand [Emmett’s mother] Mamie Till’s insistence that the world bear witness to the disfiguration of her precious son’s Black face. At this moment in history, what do you think Black people should take away from her insistence?

Franklin: Years ago, I gave a talk on campus and the title of it was “Let the People See.” The posters I used to announce it were plain and simple: a black-and white image of me against a blue background with large black letters that said, “Let the People See” and smaller ones that indicated the date, time and location. Colleagues and students were baffled by the poster and clamored for me to tell them more about the talk — in reply, I told them that the only way that they would get a sense of what I had to say would be by showing up to see and hear me speak.

I deliberately scheduled the talk for one of my mother’s visits from out of town. In addition, I also made sure that my son would be there too. Well, as the day and time finally arrived, I stepped into a standing room-only auditorium and gave a little context for the occasion. More specifically, I told the audience that my talk was a deeply personal way of marking the occasion of my son’s 14th year, and with that, I touched a button on an A/V console and projected a screen-sized image of the horribly disfigured face of Emmett Till.

Standing against the backdrop of this image, I told the audience that as horrific and traumatic as seeing it might be, that placing it on display was the least I could do to pay homage to Mrs. Mamie Till and the countless other Black mothers forced to endure this and similar sights of their young sons. Moreover, I shared with the audience how Emmett’s mother courageously opened the casket containing her 14-year-old son’s remains and called upon the nation and the world to see the heinous handywork of white supremacy in action.

Turning off the image, I began to tell the audience how for me, and many like me, it’s an image that never goes away. I told them how as a young child it was an image that made me ever fearful for my own life, and how as a father it’s one that makes me ever fearful for the life of my son.

However, following in the footsteps of Mamie Till, I went on to talk about the importance of never turning away from the task of calling out the deeds and challenging the dangers of white supremacist figures and forces — a disposition exemplified by mothers like Mamie Till and instilled in me by my own. To wit, I turned to talk about how the horror and grief of the callous killing of a Black child in 1955 was compounded by the fact that it was done without consequence; and how more than 55 years later, the anti-Black sentiments born of white supremacy continue to result in the callous killing of young Black males with social and legal impunity.

At the time, I called on all who were present to step up and answer the call to see and address the existential threat of white supremacy. Moreover, at the time, I called on all who were present to see and respond to the visual evidence of anti-Black racism and hatred. Today, however, I think that Mamie Till would consider it vitally important for not only Black people but all people to insist that the nation and the world see and respond as well to the less obvious ways in which Black people and others suffer hatred and harm in virtue of their race.

In short, at this moment in history, I see the legacy of Mrs. Mamie Till as a legacy that calls on Black people and others to insist that we see and address not only the shocking expressions of racism and hatred that threaten the lives of those beyond the pale, but also the ones that are more subtle.

Yancy: In what ways have you integrated the tragic story of Emmett Till within the context of your classrooms? Philosophically and pedagogically, what is the aim? And what has the impact been on your students?

Franklin: One of my primary goals as an educator is to foster critical consciousness in ways that compel students to recognize their agency and to use it to reckon with the realities of race within the social world.

In order to do so, I strive to force students to grapple with issues of race phenomenologically. Plainly put, I try to create a space in which students encounter others sharing stories of the lived experience of race in ways that force them to contend with the ways in which they too experience and play a role in the social realities of race.

Nothing in all my years of doing so has proven more poignant and powerful than taking them through the story of Emmett Till. Primarily, I use Stanley Nelson Jr.’s documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till. Nelson masterfully weaves together interviews and archival footage that introduce the audience to an array of figures and perspectives both directly and indirectly involved in and impacted by the murder of Emmett Till. In doing so, the documentary makes space for students to reflect upon how they themselves relate to the event and to think seriously about being as such. Ultimately, the documentary serves as a visceral focal element that allows me to provoke each student to see themselves as in some way personally connected to what transpired and what followed.

For most of my Black students and those who are situated similarly, what hits home is the juxtaposition of Black embodiment as a form of undue danger and Black agency, both that of others and potentially their own, as a potent force for demanding that society take steps to address their predicament.

For most of my white students, and those who are mostly regarded as white, what proves striking is the way in which the story of the murder of Emmett Till is in part the story of whites callously closing ranks when it comes to race and how whites today, themselves included, are faced with the challenge of actively breaking ranks with white supremacy or otherwise being complicit in the vicious and vile ways in which it continues to find expression.

Fortunately, most of my students emerge from the experience eager to play an active role in denouncing and eradicating the subtle and not so subtle forms of white supremacy that continue to plague our society and place many in peril.

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.

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