Published October 28, 2022
12 min read
On August 31, 1955, the mutilated body of 14-year-old Emmett Till was found floating in the Tallahatchie River.
Beaten and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman, the teen was one of many Black men, women, and children who were lynched without recourse in the century after the Civil War. Till’s story woke the nation up to the violent reality of being Black in America.
His legacy endures today—thanks in part to his mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till, who showed the world the brutality of her son’s murder and fought tirelessly for justice. Although Emmett’s killers were never convicted, his name and face are still evoked in the ongoing struggle for equality. Their story is told in the new film Till.
This is how Emmett Till’s murder, and his fearless mother, helped ignite the American civil rights movement.
Who was Emmett Till and what happened to him?
Emmett “Bobo” Louis Till was just 14 years old when he was murdered. Family remember him as a fun loving, gentle person who loved practical jokes and making others laugh.
But Till grew up in a time when most public spaces were segregated and marriage between races was illegal. Black people were taught to speak to white people with their eyes turned to the ground and to address them with honorifics. Violations were often answered with beatings and other uses of force.
Raised in Chicago, Till was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955. On the evening of August 24, Till went with some cousins to the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi.
Carolyn Bryant Donham, the store owner’s wife, was tending the store that evening. Despite Bryant Donham’s later claims that Till repeatedly grabbed and harassed her in the store, court documents show Till paid two cents for bubble gum and left without incident. When Bryant Donham left the store, Till whistled—his cousins say it wasn’t directed at her, but knew this would cause trouble and drove away.
Over the next three days, Bryant Donham’s husband Roy terrorized two other Black teenagers mistaken for Till: one in the Bryant store, and another walking in the road, who was thrown in the back of Bryant’s van before he was released.
On August 28 at 2: 30 a.m., Bryant, his brother J.W. Milam, and at least one other person went to the Wright home looking for the boy who had “done the talking” at the grocery store. They woke Till up and ordered him to get dressed, threatening his relatives and refusing their offer of payment in exchange for letting Till go.
(A new trail marks some of the most significant landmarks of the civil rights movement.)
The next day, Leflore County Sheriff’s Department arrested both Bryant and Milam and charged them with kidnapping. They admitted to taking Till but claimed they released him.
Two days later, Till’s naked body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire. His face was disfigured nearly beyond recognition.
Bryant and Milam were indicted on charges of murder.
What happened to Emmett Till’s killers?
In September 1955, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were tried for murder before a jury of all white men in a Tallahatchie County court. A Black teen named Willy Reed risked his life to testify that he saw the men drive Till to a farm where Reed heard them beat Till mercilessly in the barn.
The jury acquitted Milam and Bryant after deliberating for only 67 minutes. One juror told a reporter they wouldn’t have taken so long if they hadn’t “stopped to drink pop.” In November, the brothers also escaped kidnapping charges.
The men later confessed in a story they sold to Look magazine that they took Till to the Tallahatchie River, where they shot him in the head and pushed his body into the water.
No one else was ever indicted or prosecuted for involvement in Till’s kidnapping or murder.
How did Emmett Till’s murder catalyze the civil rights movement?
When Mamie Till learned her son was kidnapped, she gathered her family and called up newspapers the same day. By the next morning, she had gotten the NAACP and local and state politicians involved. This early publicity proved critical.
Her son’s casket arrived in Chicago locked with the seal of the state of Mississippi, but Mamie Till fought for the undertaker to open it. Once she saw her son, she made a monumental decision to have an open casket funeral. She famously told the funeral director: “Let the people see what I’ve seen.”
Tens of thousands of people came to see Emmett Till’s body. Jet magazine photographer David Jackson was among them, taking the photo of Till in his coffin that brought America face-to-face with the murder. Jackson, along with journalists Simeon Booker from Jet and Moses Newson of the Tri-State Defender, made the case national news.
Till’s horrific murder inspired what was later dubbed the “Emmett Till Generation” of Southern Black youth who joined meetings, sit-ins, and marches to demand their equal treatment under the law.
It also inspired the leaders of the movement. One hundred days after Till’s murder, Rosa Parks sat in the front of a Montgomery bus and refused to get up as it filled with white passengers, violating Alabama’s bus segregation laws. Reverend Jesse Jackson said in 1988 that Rosa “thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till and she couldn’t do it.”
(How Martin Luther King, Jr.’s view on human rights inspires us today.)
Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, also invoked Till’s case in several speeches. He delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the anniversary of Till’s murder at the 1963 March on Washington.
What is Till’s legacy today?
David Jackson’s powerful photograph of Emmett Till’s disfigured body continues to resonate: It has been linked with videos of Rodney King’s beating in 1991, Philando Castile’s fatal shooting at a traffic stop in 2016, George Floyd’s murder in 2020, and countless other racial injustices that have occurred in the decades since Till’s murder.
The racism that led to Till’s killing is still very much alive today, as hate groups have more than doubled in the last two decades.The memorial sign that marks where Till’s body was pulled from the river was riddled with bullet holes and had to be replaced with one covered in bullet proof glass.
(The struggle for voting rights continue decades after the March on Washington.)
Today, there’s still a push to bring charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham, one of the last living people connected to the case. In 2017, Duke University historian Timothy B. Tyson released a book in which Bryant Donham allegedly admitted lying about her interaction in the store with Till. But in December 2021, the Department of Justice announced it closed its investigation after it was unable to confirm that she had recanted her statement. In August 2022, a Mississippi grand jury also declined to indict Bryant Donham, now in her 80s.
Despite Mamie Till’s best efforts, justice for Emmett Till remains elusive.
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