One year ago today, the world watched while George Floyd was murdered at the hands of a policeman on an American street corner. His death resonated deeply in America’s consciousness, joining a distressing if familiar chorus of names, from Breonna Taylor to Ahmaud Arbery, killed by police or extrajudicial violence. The swift public reaction to Floyd’s death transcended anger and outrage, moving people to act.
In the weeks after the world witnessed that unbearable 9 minutes and 29 seconds, reports show as many as 26 million Americans took to the streets, joining peaceful protests in hundreds of cities to voice their demand for change. It was very likely the largest collective action ever on U.S. soil. In his untimely death, Floyd sparked a movement that sought to reckon with the legacy of racism as the coronavirus pandemic was at its height.
That is why today, and every day, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we remember George Floyd and so many others whose lives were taken abruptly. Their tragic deaths spur introspection and action.
History teaches us that action in the name of the fallen can bring about powerful change. There are few better examples than Emmett Till, the 14 year-old who was beaten and lynched in 1955 while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Following her son’s death, Mamie Till-Mobley did something extraordinary: She decided to hold a public funeral with an open casket. Thousands of people attended, with pictures published in magazines, fueling a national outrage.
While the men who murdered Till escaped conviction—and admitted their culpability—one mother’s decision to bear witness in the most personal way helped power the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks said Till’s death inspired her refusal to sit in the back of an Alabama bus. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of Till often; his “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered on the eighth anniversary of the young boy’s death. And the impact has endured. Emmett Till’s family reached out to George Floyd’s family as his killer went on trial and was convicted this year.
“You must continuously tell Emmett’s story until man’s consciousness is risen,” Mamie Till-Mobley once said. “Only then will there be justice for Emmett Till.”
At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, not only do Mamie Till-Mobley’s words resonate, millions have lined up since our opening to pay respects to Till’s memory and inspiration, viewing his glass casket. The connections between Till’s life and Floyd’s is one shared by our visitors, who can now return to see the reopened museum, listening to Till’s story and remembering Mamie Till-Mobley’s bravery.
Such bravery insists that we too serve as witnesses, who not only see but speak. As we reopen our doors, we welcome visitors to continue to see up close the long Civil Rights Movement, and the ongoing fight for social justice, from Harriet Tubman to the current day, providing both sustenance and solace. Remembering George Floyd and so many others whose lives were cut short reminds us of our history, the need for insight and change, and the museum’s mission in telling the story of a people and a nation.
This article was originally published by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.