1955 — 14 year old Emmett Till is murdered

Emmett Louis Till, known as “Bobo” was an African American boy from Chicago, Illinois, who was murdered after reportedly whistling at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant in Money, Mississippi (a small town in the state’s Delta region).

He was 14 years old.

His assailants – white men Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband) and J.W. Milam – beat him and an gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him in the head, and throwing him into the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied to his body with barbed wire. It was three days before his corpse was discovered and retrieved by two fishermen.

Till’s mother insisted on a public funeral service, with an open casket so as to show the world the brutality of the killing. Although the culprits were tried, they were acquitted – although years later they admitted to the murder.

Emmett Till’s murder was widely publicised, and became one of the incidents that led to the growth and importance of the American Civil Rights Movement in the Fifties and Sixties.

Referenced in:
The Death Of Emmett Till — Bob Dylan

1956 — The FBI commences COINTELPRO operations against American citizens

COINTELPRO, or COunter INTELligence PROgram, was one of the FBI’s grossest violations of the civil rights of the people it supposedly protected in the agency’s existence. Authorised by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover on August 28, 1956, and did not end until 1971. It consisted of a variety of counter-intelligence manouvres aimed at what were euphemistically called ‘domestic targets’.

The target list included organisations deemed ‘subversive’ by the FBI, approximately 85% of them leftist groups and individuals (including Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein) associated with the Civil Rights movement. The list of groups reads like a counter-culture who’s who: the SDS, the NAACP, the Congress for Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Congress, the Weathermen, the American Indian Movement and almost every group protesting the Vietnam War. (The remaining 15% of COINTELPRO’s attentions were aimed at the Ku Klux Klan and similar extreme right groups.)

Tactics used by COINTELPRO included discrediting targets through psychological warfare; smearing individuals and groups using forged documents and by planting false reports in the media; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; and illegal violence, even assassination. It only stopped after an illegal break in stole and made public documents exposing the program – not because it was, you know, wrong or illegal or anything like that, but because it made Hoover look bad in the press.

Referenced in:
Your Next Bold Move — Ani Di Franco

1963 — Martin Luther King makes his “I Have A Dream” speech

For a speech that lasted only 10 minutes, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the speech. It’s remains one of the most-quoted speeches of the twentieth century. It crystallised the ideals of the American Civil Rights Movement into a single line; a single dream.

And yet oddly, the best known part of the speech – the “I Have A Dream” section itself – was actually an improvisation. Martin Luther King was a great writer and a great orator, but on this day, he departed from the text of his pre-written speech. He spoke with passion and vision. He spoke from the heart, articulating a vision of an America – a world – which we have still not achieved.

King would be Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1963, would win the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize…

…and be assassinated a little under eight months later.

Referenced in:
She Is Always Seventeen — Harry Chapin