I see a photograph of a mother and a son: exuberance and youth and seemingly unencumbered happiness—only seemingly because they are, after all, a black mother and child—radiates from toothy smiles, from beautiful eyes, from Sunday’s Best clothing. She looks away, forward, into the bright hope of a charmed future for her boy, upon whose shoulder she lightly rests a comforting, albeit tense, hand. I see this, all of it, but I can’t look too long because something sinister—evil, even—lurks, creeps in this photograph. It gives me chills; it inflicts an almost overwhelming feeling of sadness. Unfiltered, unrefined horror lies in those stark shadows. For though the shadows rest behind the resplendent people now, I know what will become of this portrait of innocence; I know what havoc the shadows, and all that come with them, will wreak on this picturesque beauty.
This photograph was the impetus behind this special issue of Mouth. It’s hard to imagine Emmett Till as anything other than what fate made of him. It somehow never occurred to me that a mutilated, disfigured, tortured corpse could ever have been a beautiful young boy. For that reason this photograph was more disturbing than any I’d seen prior.
Nine years before the historic Civil Rights Act legislation, a fourteen-year-old boy—born less than a year after my own grandmother—had his eye gauged out, his body beaten, a shot fired through his head, and the fan of a cotton gin tied around his neck with barbed wire before his lifeless body was plunged into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Why? Because he was accused of flirting with a white woman.
Who could have known that this young boy, this radiant smile, these beautiful eyes, these freshly pressed Sunday’s Bests, would be a catalyst for the most important movement in the history of The United States?
As Mouth commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, we honor those who paid dearly for the lifestyle we all enjoy; we honor those who sacrificed to end segregation, giving white Dartmouth students the opportunity to learn and grow with their black peers, giving black students like myself the opportunity for a more fair shot at life; and we honor those who continue to struggle against inequity, battling for status as first-class citizens.
We’re proud to feature words from those who lived through the Civil Rights Era: Ambassador Andrew Young, Ms. Thelma Bennett, and Doctor Evelynn Ellis—many thanks to them for their willingness to support our vision. We’re also excited to present the fruits of a wonderful partnership with The Hood Museum of Art (in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum) for their current exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties. Lastly, we’re exceedingly grateful to our student writers, including members of The Black Ivy Council, whose talents exemplify the potential of creative expression to inform and empower.
Noah Smith ’15 and The Mouth Editorial Board