Photographs of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s disfigured remains appeared in the Sept. 15, 1955 issue of JET magazine. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, wanted the world to see what Southern racism had done to her once-beautiful child, murdered after accusations that he had whistled at a White woman in Mississippi.
On Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. didn’t have the opportunity to decide if they wanted the haunting image of their slain 18-year-old son shared publicly. Minutes after Michael Brown Jr.’s death at the hands of now-former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, cell phone videos, details, questions and photos flooded social media timelines as a community came together to mourn and seek answers. Why did a police officer kill an unarmed teen? What made Wilson stop Brown in the first place? How many times did Wilson shoot Brown? How many more Black people will die via the actions of law enforcement before acknowledgment of a systemic problem?
As the night wore on, the crowd of people taking to the streets continued to swell and were met by the very police forces they had gathered to protest. Within 24 hours, scenes of unrest and claims that aggressive police officers detaining and tear-gassing peaceful protestors and even members of the media without provocation dominated the news cycle. Just as elders of the Civil Rights Movement have cited those disturbing pictures of Till as inspiration, the viral images of Brown’s body—which remained on Canfield Drive for four and a half hours—would be a clarion call to a new generation of activists across the world, triggered by what they perceived to be an act of state-sanctioned murder.
The unrest that unfolded in the two weeks following Brown’s killing would spark over a year of protests across the country, in cities including Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and Oakland, Calif. —all home to their own controversial officer-involved killings of unarmed Black people. St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch convened a grand jury that then decided against indicting the officer. That decision would lead to more unrest in November and a renewed commitment by many to push for change in a system that, according to a popular chant, “is guilty as hell.”
We have seen the rise of a new social justice movement that is not anchored by one charismatic leader or just one organization but is instead connected by a very simple concept: “Black lives matter.” Activists, both new and seasoned, young and old, maintain that unjustified or racially motivated police violence, mass incarceration and economic disenfranchisement work in tandem. These activists also agree that the current fight is for the human rights of Black people of all backgrounds: male, female, young, old, straight, cisgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. All Black lives must matter if we are ever to see an end to the sort of tragedy that put Ferguson in the national spotlight.
As we mark the one-year anniversary of Brown’s death, EBONY caught up with those close to the story for their takes on how the incident impacted Ferguson, St. Louis and the world—and how we can all move forward.
Pick up the August issue of EBONY to read more.
(Words: Jamilah Lemieux; Photographs: Geoffrey Black.)
Read more in the August 2015 issue of EBONY, on stands now!