Decades ago, photos of Emmett Till’s murdered body galvanized action for civil rights. Today, disturbing images could do the same for gun control.
By Mitchell Zimmerman | June 1, 2022
In the days since the Uvalde shooting, media outlets have shared heartbreaking images of the small victims as they were cherished in life. As Americans, we’re forced to look into their young, innocent eyes and accept our shame that we failed to protect them.
What we haven’t seen is what they looked like after their lives were ripped away by AR-15 bullets. Many of the children were reportedly so mutilated they could only be identified by DNA.
It is understandable that a newspaper would be loath to publish such photographs. Most human beings would be loath to look at them.
But in the past, such disturbing images have been used to galvanize action — by forcing us to examine painful realities. When I was a civil rights organizer in the South back in the 1960s, one episode still loomed large in the minds of those who took part in the freedom struggle.
On an August night in 1955, two white men forced their way into a house in rural Mississippi, and abducted a 14-year-old Black child from Chicago named Emmett Till. Emmett had been visiting his Mississippi relatives for the summer.
Earlier that same day, in response to a “dare,” Emmett allegedly committed the “crime” of whistling at a white woman in a local grocery store.
The two men kidnapped Emmett and brutally beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head. Using barbed wire, they tied the dead teenager to a heavy metal fan and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. His body wasn’t taken from the river for another week.
His mother insisted on an open casket funeral. “Everybody needs to know what happened to Emmett Till,” she said.
Tens of thousands viewed the body as it was, and Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender ran photographs of the brutalized child. The resulting anger and grief stiffened the determination of the civil rights movement.
Just as children in America today face the reality that a deranged or racist person with an assault rifle can invade their school and take their lives, in 1955 young Black children in the South bore the knowledge that any white man who chose to could pull them out of their home in the night and murder them — and that their society would grant the killer complete impunity.
That bitter knowledge helped mobilize a generation of African Americans and their white allies to fight against segregation and white supremacy. Could the horrific images of the unrecognizable bodies of murdered schoolchildren move more Americans toward confronting our gun problem?
The families of the Uvalde victims will make their own painful decisions regarding the remains of their children. They owe us nothing — it is we who owe them our shamed apologies for failing to protect their children from the now well-known danger of mass murder.
No one can demand the right to use photographs of the victims.
But children aren’t the only ones whose bodies have been torn apart and rendered unrecognizable by modern assault weapons. Photographs from both wartime and the home front can doubtless be found to illustrate the costs of so-called “gun rights.”
These disturbing images could ignite the public conscience. They could also be put before gun buyers themselves.
A number of states force women exercising their constitutional right to abortion to look at fetal sonograms before ending their pregnancy. What if states required anyone who wants to buy an assault rifle, or other semi-automatic weapon, to first see photos or films that show what such weapons do to human bodies?
Some buyers would no doubt harden their hearts and persuade themselves they must have a weapon of war to defend their homes from an attack by imaginary hordes or other fictitious threats — or to overthrow a government so tyrannical as to consider regulating firearms.
But perhaps some would reconsider whether they really need this kind of weapon to hunt or engage in target shooting.
There is no Second Amendment right to protection from reality.
Mitchell Zimmerman is an attorney, longtime social activist, and author of the anti-racism thriller Mississippi Reckoning. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.
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