I always saw the story of Emmett Till's murder as the epitome of all Reconstruction's shortcomings. While Southern industry made strong moves to catch up with the Northern economy, it did so by reasserting white supremacy over society. What is worse is that the federal government, wrapped up in economic woes, westward expansion, and imperialistic development, did nothing to protect the civil rights of African Americans.
Till's story also brings us full circle, in the sense that it raises the issue of freedom, and the way that it applies to modern America. In the 19th century, it was clear that freedom was not an absolute right awarded to all Americans because of the number of bodies that were deemed as property by the federal government. By 1955, the year of Till's murder, one would think that freedom would expand to all those protected by the 14th Amendment. But it did not. Till's violated body, that his mother insisted upon showing to the world, displays the degree to which black Americans were still not given the freedom that Reconstruction policies had promised them.
As we leave this unit behind us, we must consider what freedom actually is. While slavery is over, the ability of the federal government to grant equal rights to all citizens seems to be a continuing battle. The government's conception of freedom will change in our next unit to the idea of economic equality and what happens when capitalism is in crisis.
So why should we mourn Emmett? In what ways does his death demonstrate the degree to which the federal government conceptualizes natural rights by the mid 20th century? What went wrong?