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The Murder of Emmett Till
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Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

% The film The Murder of Emmett Till and this companion Web site offer insights into topics in American history including race relations, civil rights, segregation, lynching, sharecropping, and the northern migration of African Americans. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: history, economics, geography, and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.

History | Civics | Geography | Economics

1. Divide the class into five groups. Assign each group one of the time periods in the timeline at the PBS Web site, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. Each group should examine the events in its time period and choose the three events during the time period that it regards as the most important in the struggle for civil rights. Then, as a class, prepare a single timeline for the 1863-1954 period. To do so, each group should describe the three events it chose to the other groups, and the class as a whole should vote to select two events per time period to include in the timeline. The final timeline should briefly explain the significance of each event included.

2. William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Controversies continue to emerge over events, individuals, and even symbols that are connected to the history of race in the United States. Divide the class into five groups and assign each group one of the following topics:

(a) Mississippi senator Trent Lott's December 2002 statement in support of the 1948 pro-segregationist presidential candidacy of Strom Thurmond;

(b) Georgia's state flag, which until January 2001 prominently featured a Confederate battle flag;

(c) the 2000 visit by presidential candidate George W. Bush to the fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University, which at that time banned interracial dating;

(d) the proposal that the United States government pay reparations to the descendants of slaves for the harm done to their ancestors by slavery;

(e) Thomas Jefferson's relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

Each group should research its issue and prepare a five-minute presentation for the class. After each presentation, the class should discuss whether the public controversy over this issue helped the nation make progress in the area of civil rights.

History | Civics | Geography | Economics

1. Read about Teens and Segregation. Then choose one of the examples of student writing and write a response to it. Your response can be in the form of a letter, poem, or essay, and can represent your own views or the views of another person, such as Emmett Till, his mother, or a person who was inspired by Till's murder to work for civil rights.

2a. Access the PBS "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow" Web site's interactive maps feature. Launch the maps then select "Jim Crow Laws" and read about Mississippi's "Jim Crow" laws in different categories. Some of these laws, such as those concerning railroad and streetcar seating, stated that blacks and whites should be treated equally, while being kept separate. Research the two famous Supreme Court cases -- Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 and Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 -- that marked the rise and fall of the "separate but equal" doctrine. Write a paragraph about each case, briefly summarizing the issue involved and the importance of the Court's decision.

2b. Reread the Mississippi "Jim Crow" laws and note that in contrast to the "separate but equal" laws, other laws (those concerning miscegenation and promoting the social equality of blacks) openly discriminated against blacks. Think about the connection between segregation and discrimination: Is it possible for the law to keep the races separate yet treat them equally, or will segregation always mean discrimination? What about other forms of segregation: for example, the fact that a school might be mostly white or black because the surrounding neighborhood is? Do forms of segregation that are not caused by legal requirements lead to discrimination -- and if so, should the government try to stop them? Write a brief essay that presents your views on the connection between segregation and discrimination.

3a. Read about lynching in America. As the article explains, lynchings often were public events, and photographs of lynching victims were published in newspapers and on postcards. Imagine that you are an African American living in the South. Write a letter to a friend describing your reaction to hearing about a recent lynching in your area and seeing photographs of it. What emotions does this create? How might it affect your future behavior?

3b. Now imagine that you are an African American living in Chicago. Write a letter to a friend describing your reaction to seeing Emmett Till's body at his funeral. What emotions does this create? How might it affect your future behavior?

3c. Now compare the two letters you wrote. How do they differ? What might account for these differences?

History | Civics | Geography | Economics

1a. View a map from the Census Bureau showing the population density of African Americans across the United States in 1990. Photocopy or trace a map of the United States and use colored markers or crayons to represent, in general terms, the information shown on that map. Now circle Chicago, where Emmett Till was born, and the delta region of Mississippi, where he was murdered. What do those two places have in common? How does this show that many African Americans (like Emmett's mother) migrated from the deep South to northern cities, as the film describes?

1b. What evidence does the map show that many African Americans did not migrate northward?

2. At the time Emmett Till was murdered, southern politics was still dominated by the Democratic Party, as it had been since the Civil War; one goal of the violence and intimidation directed against African Americans in the South was to keep them from voting for Republican candidates. Choose a presidential election between 1900 and 2000 (if possible, each student should choose a different election) and prepare an electoral map showing which candidate won which states. Everyone in the class should use the same color scheme for the Democratic and Republican candidates so that the maps can be compared easily. When the maps are done, post them around the room in chronological order. What similarities do you see? What differences?

History | Civics | Geography | Economics

1. Read about sharecropping in Mississippi. Sharecropping is a form of tenant farming, in which a person raises crops on land owned by another person. While sharecroppers' only contribution to the farm was their labor, other forms of tenant farming existed in which farmers contributed equipment and/or paid rent to the landowner to work the land. Generally, farmers who contributed more to the farm had more control over the land and were more likely to succeed economically. Working with two partners, create a poster that shows why sharecroppers often remained trapped in poverty. For example, you could illustrate the cycle by which sharecroppers often fell deeper and deeper into debt, or create a chart that compares different forms of farming (from owning the land down to sharecropping), or list the areas of life over which a sharecropper has no control.

2. While southern blacks were overwhelmingly poor, large numbers of southern whites were poor as well. However, poor whites and blacks did not join forces politically to try to address the economic problems they had in common. Why not? Explore this question by dramatizing a series of interviews between a newspaper reporter and individual black and white southerners. Ask a volunteer to act as the reporter, who will ask each individual (played by the other members of the class) whether he or she favors a political alliance with poor members of the other race and why such an alliance has not yet emerged. Before being interviewed, students should choose an age, race, and sex and decide what "their" individual's views on this question will be.

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