The murder of Jayland Walker did not arouse the expected protests. Here’s why.
There were local protests against the Akron police. Yet nationally, the incident hasn’t galvanized the public as much as the 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Protests across the country have been relatively muted. Walker didn’t even follow the trend for long on Twitter, a platform that has been a key organizing tool for recent protest movements.
The difference between the two cases reveals how the media play a vital role in fueling activism. In the 21st century, that means social media. But in the 20th century, another type of media, television, was closely tied to the growth of the civil rights movement. A look back at the 1950s and the infamous lynching of Emmett Till, and the lesser-known murder of Clinton Melton, shows how media stories and images create victim narratives and play a crucial role in mobilizing the public against racial violence and injustice.
In the 1940s, television provided entertainment and the public did not see it as a way to learn about current affairs. Because so few Americans owned televisions—about 3 million televisions were sold over the entire decade—they depended on newspapers and radio for their reporting.
That started to change in the 1950s, when over 5 million televisions were sold each year. With the rise of the civil rights movement, tragedy mixed with new media to help wake the nation against segregation. The immediacy offered by television when covering the civil rights struggle has legitimized the medium as a reliable source of information. Similarly, the civil rights movement also benefited from television interest. The video recordings allowed black people to show the world how violent southern racist whites could be, while publicizing the activists’ vision of equality. Through television, black Americans were able to challenge the racial social order in ways they previously could not.
The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 provided a notable example. While visiting family in Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett was kidnapped and killed for the alleged crime of whistling to Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, JW Milam, took Emmett from his uncle’s house. They beat the boy mercilessly, shot him in the head and threw him into the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied to his body with barbed wire.
Three days later, the boy’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, learns of her son’s lynching, and even in her grief sets out to “show the world” how violence is used to maintain white supremacy. To that end, she insisted on an open casket funeral for her son and, with the help of the NAACP, invited news stations and newspapers to cover the event.
Jet Magazine, a black outlet, posted photos of Emmett’s mutilated body alongside images of him on his last Christmas at home, smiling next to a TV. Mainstream news outlets, including the New York Times, picked up the story from the black press and delivered it into white homes. Newspapers focused on Emmett’s loving family and his youth, countering white racist stereotypes about black men as sexual aggressors. Headlines, such as “Mother’s Tears Greet Son Who Died a Martyr” in the Chicago Defender, also placed Till-Mobley and her pain at the center of the story.
More importantly, television stations broadcast the funeral, at which an estimated 50,000 mostly black people came to pay their respects. The live-action film captured the anguish and grief of black visitors, and Till-Mobley herself spoke to reporters about the tragedy of losing her son to white violence.
The boy’s lynching and the subsequent trial of Milam and Bryant for his murder were widely reported, not only in the United States, but internationally. When Milam and Bryant were acquitted, the widespread media coverage helped spur protest rallies in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Baltimore and beyond the United States to Copenhagen, Paris and Tokyo.
Four months later, however, the murder of Clinton Melton has generated far less collective action.
Melton, a black father and gas station attendant, has resided all his life in Glendora, Mississippi, four miles north of the town where Emmett Till was killed. He was fatally shot while on the job by Elmer Kimball – a friend of JW Milam, actually – who claimed that Melton “got smart” with him when he wanted to refuel his truck. Kimball also claimed that after a verbal altercation, Melton fired a gun first before Kimball retaliated three times, killing Melton. But no evidence was found that Melton even had a gun or shot Kimball. Nonetheless, Kimball claimed self-defense and was ultimately acquitted.
But there was a crucial difference between the cases. Melton’s wife, Beulah, did not seek, or appear to want, NAACP assistance as Till-Mobley had, for fear of White reprisals. Unlike Till-Mobley, who lived in Chicago, Melton lived in the heart of the Jim Crow South, which would have made it dangerous for her to try to publicize the case or work with civil rights organizations.
Yet Melton’s murder still made national news. As with Emmett’s murder, newspapers – especially those outside the South – used the grief and suffering experienced by Melton’s wife and children to tell the story of another wanton murder in the Mississippi. An article in the Pittsburgh Courier even included a telegram from the Emma Lazarus Federation of the Jewish Women’s Club pleading with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to sympathize, as a father, with the Melton family. The federation asked Eisenhower to send federal troops to Mississippi to stop white supremacists from continuing what has been described as “genocide” against black Americans.
Although newspapers reported on Melton’s murder and Kimball’s trial, media coverage was minimal compared to Emmett’s – a detail that reporters commented on. A local Connecticut newspaper compared the Till trial, which averaged 75 to 100 reporters in attendance each day, to the Melton murder trial, which drew only a dozen. Journalist David Halberstam of The Reporter suggested that one reason for this might have been that the Melton family “lacks reader appeal” because they were from the South, compared to the middle-class Till family of the North.
But more importantly, without the springboard of print coverage, television news failed to cover the event. The story didn’t reach Americans in their homes like Emmett’s death did, and without media coverage to help spark outrage, the protests remained local and small.
In the 1950s, radio reporters capitalized on the frequently recurring television drama that major protests and marches provided. And civil rights organizations have also understood this correlation. For example, organizers cleverly shaped protests to ensure media coverage by staging marches before 2 p.m. so that network news crews had plenty of time to prepare their film for broadcast that night. They even sang freedom songs with short, repetitive phrases – such as “We Shall Overcome” – to make sure their message fit into short 10-second sound clips.
This symbiotic relationship between media and movements continues today with the advent of the internet, smartphones and social networks.
Long ago, television amplified the horror of Emmett Till’s lynching, but it also amplified the immediacy and urgency of the crisis, just as social media did for black people killed by policing in the 21st century. But in Jayland Walker’s case, the video of his death was taken on police body cameras, not a bystander’s phone. Report of his death circulated for six days before the video was released by Akron police, disrupting how the public connected the story of Walker’s death to visual evidence. Additionally, Walker’s mother, Pamela, sought to blur her son’s image in the video in an effort to prevent the kind of voyeurism that can fetishize black pain.
Walker’s mother and sister, Jada, have so far given few interviews. Instead, they asked for privacy and peace, which George Floyd’s brother Philonise had hoped for before finally choosing a public role as a police reform campaigner.
While understandable, the media’s ability to personalize bereavement depends, in many ways, on explicit videos of public murders and the emotional strain of grieving family members to put themselves in the spotlight. The variations in public response to these two murders therefore do not indicate that people are insensitive to violence against black people. Instead, it shows how normalized it has become and how much more it takes to capture the audience’s attention.