On August 28, 1955, while visiting family in Money, Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African American from Chicago, is brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman four days earlier.
His assailants—the white woman’s husband and her brother—made Emmett carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the bank of the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to take off his clothes. The two men then beat him nearly to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head and then threw his body, tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, into the river.
Who Was Emmett Till?
Emmett Till, a 14-year old African American boy, was murdered in August 1955 in a racist attack that shocked the nation and provided a catalyst for the emerging civil rights movement. A Chicago native, Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, when he was accused of harassing a local white woman. Several days later, relatives of the woman abducted Till, brutally beating and killing him before disposing of his body in a nearby river. Till’s devastated mother insisted on a public, open-casket funeral for her son to shed light on the violence inflicted on blacks in the South. Till’s murderers were acquitted, but his death galvanized civil rights activists nationwide.
Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of Louis and Mamie Till. Till never knew his father, a private in the United States Army during World War II.
Emmett Till’s mother was by all accounts an extraordinary woman. While raising Emmett Till as a single mother, she worked long hours for the Air Force as a clerk in charge of secret and confidential files.
With his mother often working more than 12-hour days, Till took on his full share of domestic responsibilities from a very young age. His mother recalls, “Emmett had all the house responsibility. I mean everything was really on his shoulders, and Emmett took it upon himself. He told me if I would work, and make the money, he would take care of everything else. He cleaned, and he cooked quite a bit. And he even took over the laundry.”
In August 1955, Till’s great uncle Moses Wright came up from Mississippi to visit the family in Chicago. At the end of his stay, Wright was planning to take Till’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, back to Mississippi with him to visit relatives down South, and when Till learned of these plans he begged his mother to let him go along.
Three days after arriving in Money, Mississippi, on August 24, 1955, Emmett Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy refreshments after a long day picking cotton in the hot afternoon sun. What exactly transpired inside the grocery store that afternoon will never be known.
Till purchased bubble gum, and some of the kids with him would later report that he either whistled at, flirted with, or touched the hand of the store’s white female clerk—and wife of the owner—Carolyn Bryant.
Four days later, at approximately 2:30 in the morning on August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till from Moses Wright’s home. They then beat the teenager brutally, dragged him to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan and shoved his mutilated body into the water.
Till’s body was shipped to Chicago, where his mother opted to have an open-casket funeral with Till’s body on display for five days. Thousands of people came to the Roberts Temple Church of God to see the evidence of this brutal hate crime.
Till’s mother said that, despite the enormous pain it caused her to see her son’s dead body on display, she opted for an open-casket funeral to “let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like.”
In the weeks that passed between Till’s burial and the murder and kidnapping trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two Black publications, Jetmagazine and the Chicago Defender, published graphic images of Till’s corpse. By the time the trial commenced on September 19, Emmett Till’s murder had become a source of outrage and indignation throughout much of the country.
Because Black people and women were barred from serving jury duty, Bryant and Milam were tried before an all-white, all-male jury. In an act of extraordinary bravery, Moses Wright took the stand and identified Bryant and Milam as Till’s kidnappers and killers. At the time, it was almost unheard of for Black people to openly accuse whites in court, and by doing so Wright put his own life in grave danger.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the defendants’ guilt and widespread pleas for justice from outside Mississippi, on September 23 the panel of white male jurors acquitted Bryant and Milam of all charges. Their deliberations lasted a mere 67 minutes.
Only a few months later, in January 1956, Bryant and Milam admitted to committing the crime. Protected by double jeopardy laws, they told the whole story of how they kidnapped and killed Emmett Till to Look magazine for $4,000.
Coming only one year after the Supreme Court‘s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of racial segregation in public schools, Till’s death provided an important catalyst for the American civil rights movement.
In 2007, over 50 years after the murder, the woman who claimed Till harassed her recanted parts of her account. Speaking to a historian, then 72-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted Till hadn’t grabbed her. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she told Timothy B. Tyson, who was writing a book about the case. The revelations weren’t made public until 2017, when the book was released.
In 2018, following Donham’s admission, the Justice Department opened a new inquiry into the case.
How Emmett Till’s Murder Galvanized the Civil Rights Movement
For his book The Blood of Emmett Till, the historian Timothy B. Tyson interviewed Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose brief encounter with Emmett Till in August 1955 led to his brutal lynching at the hands of her husband and brother-in-law. At the time, Donham was a young mother of two boys, and owned and operated a country store in Money, Mississippi, with her then-husband, Roy Bryant. Before Tyson’s interview with her, which took place in 2008, she had never spoken with the media about the case.
According to recovered court transcripts released by the FBI in 2007, Carolyn testified that she was working the cash register on the night of August 24 when Till walked into the store. He flirted with her and made physical advances, then let out a “wolf whistle” as she walked out of the store to retrieve a gun from her car.
But in the interview with Tyson, Donham (by then 72 years old, divorced from Roy Bryant and twice remarried) admitted that she had lied in her court testimony when she said Till had “grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities.” Donham said she couldn’t remember what happened the rest of that night. Whatever it was, she told Tyson, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
Less than four days after Till’s interaction with Carolyn Bryant, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped the 14-year-old boy from his great-uncle’s house. In the wee hours of August 28, 1955, they beat him severely and shot him in the head. After tying a heavy cotton gin fan to his neck with barbed wire, they threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. Despite their efforts, the body surfaced three days later, so bloated and disfigured that Till had to be identified by a ring on his finger.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, had been reluctant to allow her son to travel to Mississippi. Mobley had grown up in the rural South, and knew it was a dangerous place for a young black boy. After her only child’s mutilated body was transported home, Mobley demanded an open-casket funeral, so the whole world could see what had been done to her son. Over five days, more than 100,000 people lined up to view Till’s body, and Jetmagazine published graphic photos that were reprinted all over the world.
Outrage over Emmett Till’s lynching didn’t launch the civil rights movement, which had already begun among African Americans around the country, including the South. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down its verdict in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that segregated (“separate but equal”) schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. But in Mississippi, efforts to overturn the Jim Crow social order had been heavily resisted, and often met with violence. In the months before Till’s murder, Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith were separately shot and killed in the state after helping organize black voter-registration drives. Smith was shot in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, as he left the county courthouse in Brookhaven after casting his ballot.
The shocking brutality of Till’s murder, however, and the fact that he was only 14 years old, served to galvanize civil rights workers in Mississippi and beyond. Medgar Evers, then an NAACP field officer in Mississippi, led a secret campaign to find black witnesses who would come forward in the Till case. Another civil rights leader in the state, Dr. T. R. M. Howard, hired armed guards to protect those witnesses, as well as Till’s mother, during the trial. (Howard already had protection for himself, as he had received death threats.)
During the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, Till’s great-uncle Moses Wright identified them in open court as the two men who kidnapped Emmett. After the all-white male jury quickly acquitted the defendants of the murder, Wright and another black witness had to be smuggled out of the state to avoid reprisals. “It’s getting to be a strange thing that the FBI can never seem to work out who is responsible for the killings of Negroes in the South,” Howard said of the verdict, in a public reproof to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. (Howard himself would later flee Mississippi for Chicago after showing up on the “death list” of the Ku Klux Klan, while a white segregationist would assassinate Medgar Evers in 1963.)
A few months after the murder trial, a writer for Look magazine paid Bryant and Milam $4,000 to go on record about how they killed Emmett Till. As they had already been tried once for the crime, the public confession didn’t lead to new charges, but the utter lack of remorse they showed, along with the shocking details of how they had tortured and murdered this 14-year-old boy fueled national outrage. Mamie Till Mobley went on to become an important civil rights figure in her own right, spending the rest of her life (she died in 2003) speaking out about racial injustice and working to ensure her only child’s sacrifice wasn’t forgotten.
Even beyond his mother’s actions, however, Till’s sacrifice had already had an indelible impact on the future of the civil rights movement. On December 5, 100 days after Till was murdered, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. As Parks later said of her actions that day, “I thought of Emmett Till, and when the bus driver ordered me to move to the back, I just couldn’t move.” Her arrest, of course, sparked the now-famous Montgomery bus boycott that turned the struggle for civil rights into a mass movement led by a then-26-year-old minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.