Sculpture of Emmett Till's face in plaster
His Reward, Emmett Till, c. 1955-1960, by Clarence Lawson (American, 1909-1988) 2018-129-1. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Clarence Lawson’s Prayer for Emmett Till

Jessica Todd Smith, PhD

How the sculptor created an indelible memorial to a young man and a symbol of the fight for Civil Rights

On March 29, 2022, a bill that officially made lynching a hate crime was made into federal law, more than a century after similar legislation was introduced and after more than 200 failed attempts to outlaw lynching in the United States.* The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was named in commemoration of a teenager whose tragic death over 65 years ago served as a source of inspiration within the Civil Rights movement and led the artist Clarence Lawson to create a commemorative sculpture, acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2018.

Shortly after his fourteenth birthday on July 25, 1955, Emmett Till traveled from his home in Chicago to visit family in Money, Mississippi. While there, he went to Bryant Grocery to purchase chewing gum and candy. The Black teenager had a brief exchange with Carolyn Bryant, the white woman tending the store. According to witness accounts, Till whistled at Bryant. She later claimed that he had flirted with her and attempted assault.

On August 28, at approximately 2:30 a.m., her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam abducted Till, beat him, shot him, tied a heavy cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. After Till’s body was recovered, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, had him returned to Chicago where she insisted on an open-casket funeral to show the world the violence done to her son. It is estimated that over one hundred thousand mourners viewed Till’s remains.

The funeral was covered by Jet magazine. Bryant and Milam were quickly acquitted of the murder but, after the trial, they confessed their guilt in a story they sold to Look magazine, published in January 1956.

Black and white aerial photo of thousands of mourners on a city street
A huge crowd gathered for Emmett Till’s funeral outside the Church of God in Christ on the South Side of Chicago on September 3, 1955, in Chicago (Phil Mascione, Chicago Tribune)

The murder of Emmett Till galvanized a wave of Civil Rights activism and moved Clarence Lawson, a Black artist living in Chicago at the time of Till’s funeral, to commemorate the young man’s life and death.

The work is part of a tradition of funerary portraiture that stretches back to antiquity. Lawson also evoked the imagery of a death mask that would have been cast from the deceased. The plaster or wax used for most death masks meant they often were white. With this sculpture, Lawson worked in plaster but altered its inherent whiteness by using a metallic-fleck paint for the face. An inky black runs down the face in rivulets, merging with patches of dark red that suggest pools of dried blood.

Black and white photo of Clarence Lawson working on a sculpture

Clarence Lawson and his wife Della viewing one of the artist's sculptures

Left: Clarence Lawson sculpting a stone sculpture from his own drawing, c. 1950; Right: Undated photo of Lawson and his wife, Della, viewing a work by the artist. Photos courtesy of Barton Faist Gallery and Studio, Chicago, IL.

Lawson was an accomplished artist by the time he began work on this sculpture. He had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and visited Europe, Asia, and the Middle East on a prestigious traveling fellowship. By the 1950s, he was best known for realistic portraits, such as the bronze head of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff that he exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1951.

Bust of composes Sergei Rachmaninoff
Rachmaninoff No. 2, 1951, by Clarence Lawson (American, 1909-1988) Image from the catalogue for American Sculpture 1951: A National Competitive Exhibition, December 7, 1951 – February 24, 1952, courtesy of Watson Library of Digital Collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

With His Reward, Emmett Till, Lawson used abstraction to evoke the terrible violence done to the teenager, while transcending some of the most atrocious details of the murder. The artist was a deeply religious man, and the inscription of “His Reward” at the bottom of the sculpture likely references Matthew 5:12 in the Bible, “Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad; for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” The verse of the Bible seems to express Lawson’s wish for eternal peace for the murdered youth.

The sculpture is on view through July 24, 2022 in the exhibition Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century, among other works that evoke specific people and events of the past to keep them alive in personal thoughts and historical reckoning.

I would like to thank Benjamin Saulsberry, Public Engagement Director, Emmett Till Interpretive Center, Sumner, Mississippi, and the entire Elegy Advisory Group for their assistance with the exhibition.

*Chuck Schumer, transcription of remarks made in the senate March 7, 2022, “Majority Leader Schumer Floor Remarks On Senate Passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act”

Jessica Todd Smith is the Susan Gray Detweiler Curator of American Art and Manager of the Center for American Art. While she is responsible for American painting and sculpture made between 1900 and around 1960, she is deeply grateful to her curatorial colleagues for allowing her to stretch beyond those parameters from time to time.

Her curatorial projects for the museum in addition to Elegy: Lament in the 20th Century have included Modern Times: American Art 1910−1950; Herbert Ferber: Form into Space (with Timothy Rub); Horace Pippin: From War to Peace; and Painting Identity. Prior to her arrival at the museum in 2016, Smith was the Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.