On August 31, 1955, the body of Emmett Till was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River in northern Mississippi. Beaten to a pulp and with his eye gouged out, his face was disfigured almost beyond recognition. His great-uncle Moses Wright may have only recognized him because the 14-year-old boy was still wearing his father’s initialed ring. News of Till’s murder sent shockwaves through the Black community. Five days after his body was recovered, more than 50,000 mourners paid their respects at his open-casket funeral in Chicago. And exactly 100 days after he was killed, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, a revolutionary act that snowballed into a national movement for civil rights. How did the murder of Emmett Till galvanize so many Americans to fight back against racism?
TIME magazine’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World identifies a single turning point: the published image of Till’s mother standing with a man over her son’s mutilated body. After the corpse was recovered, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley traveled to Money, Mississippi, to see her son for herself. According to TIME, she refused to bury him in Mississippi, as the funeral parlor had urged her, but instead loaded her son’s body onto a train headed back home to the South Side of Chicago. There she said to the funeral home director: “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” Mamie allowed David Jackson, a photographer from the Black-owned JET magazine, to photograph her son with her standing behind him. As JET would later describe the scene, “Her face wet with tears, she leaned over the body, just removed from a rubber bag in a Chicago funeral home, and cried out, ‘Darling, you have not died in vain. Your life has been sacrificed for something.’ ”
According to The New York Times, no white-centred media publications printed this image. But the work had been done. The story of Emmett Till, as told through the images published in JET and other Black-owned media, shocked the entire nation. The image of his body set in motion a movement for civil rights that would forever change the lives of Black Americans.
Catherine de’ Medici might say that the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day was never intended to happen. After all, she was originally involved in a plan to kill only one person, not thousands.
The start of the massacre can be traced to familial, and religious, origins. King Charles IX of France was Catherine’s second son to sit on the French throne after the death of her husband in 1559. Charles succeeded her eldest son, Francis II, whose reign was a short and unsuccessful one; before Francis died in 1560, his sickly demeanor and weak will had made him susceptible to manipulation from the powerful Guise family, Roman Catholics who wanted to dilute the political power of the rival Huguenots (French Protestants).
In 1572 Catherine was seeing another son fall prey to outside influence—this time, in the opposite direction. One of Charles’s key advisers was Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny, a Huguenot who supported war against Spain as a way to prevent the resumption of civil war in France between Huguenots and Catholics. Charles was expected to approve the plan that summer, starting one war to prevent another.
Though her exact actions are difficult to track, Catherine likely took matters into her own hands. She gave her approval to a plot hatched by the house of Guise to assassinate Coligny, whom they held responsible for the murder of François de Guise in 1563. The assassination was planned for the week of her daughter Margaret’s wedding to the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, an occasion that brought Huguenot nobility from across France into Paris. Four days after the wedding ceremony, the assassination was attempted—but it failed. Coligny was merely wounded, and the Huguenot nobility, conveniently on the scene, demanded answers. Charles IX promised to investigate.
Afraid of her involvement being discovered, Catherine scrambled to cover her tracks. She met secretly with a group of nobles at the Tuileries Palace to hatch a new plot: this time to completely exterminate the Huguenot leaders in Paris. With the approval of Charles, who was possibly misled into believing that the Huguenots were about to rebel, the massacre began just before dawn on August 24, 1572.
Coligny was one of the first to die, the original assassination plan successful at last. All visiting Huguenots except Navarre and Henry I de Bourbon were quickly slaughtered. Nonroyal Huguenots were dragged out of their homes and shops and murdered, their bodies often thrown into the Seine. Soon the violence was no longer being carried out just by those involved with the royal family: Catholic citizens took it upon themselves to kill their Huguenot neighbors.
On August 25 the king decreed that the violence should stop, claiming that it was a government-sanctioned move against a Huguenot threat to the crown. Instead, it continued in Paris and spread to the provinces. Estimates of the number of victims range from 2,000 (a number proposed by a Roman Catholic apologist) to 70,000 (proposed by the contemporary Huguenot Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully). Modern writers put the number of deaths at 3,000 in Paris alone.
But if Catherine had hoped the massacre would frighten the remaining Huguenots into submission, she was sorely disappointed. Tensions heightened between Catholics and Huguenots, the latter of whom abandoned John Calvin’s principle of respecting earthly leaders, such as the French royal family. Maybe, they came to believe, in some circumstances regicide was acceptable after all. That fate did not befall Catherine, who died of pleurisy at age 69. Nor was Charles assassinated—he died of tuberculosis in 1574—but his brother, who succeeded him on the French throne as Henry III, was killed. Not by a Huguenot, though, but by a Catholic friar. The chaos that Catherine had sown had grown voraciously.