The Murder that Changed American History
The murder of 15 year old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 ignited the civil rights movement and changed American history.
Emmett Till grew up in a middle class neighborhood on Chicago's south side. By all accounts he was a lovable, popular, funny, bright and intelligent kid, and his mother, Mamie Till, was an accomplished and amazing woman. Mamie was only the fourth African-American to graduate from Chicago's prestigious Argo Community High School and the first black student to earn an all "A" average, earning her a place on the school's honor roll.
Emmett was stricken with polio when he was five, but he made a full recovery, and only a slight stutter remained as a mark of his illness. His mother was working twelve-hour days to make ends meet, and Emmett told his mother that if she would earn the money, he would "do everything else," and he did. Recalled his mother, "Emmett had all the house responsibility. I mean everything was really on his shoulders. Emmett cleaned, and he cooked a quite a lot. And he even took over the laundry."
In August, 1955, Emmett's great uncle Moses Wright visited from Mississippi, and he planned to take Emmett's cousin Wheeler Parker back to Mississippi. When Emmett learned of this he begged his mother to let him go as well. She was reluctant at first but everntually gave in to her son's pleading and allowed him to make the trip. Emmett boarded a train and headed south, carrying the signet ring Mamie gave him that had belonged to his father, which was engraved with his initials - L.T.
Three days after his arrival, Emmett and his cousins from Money, Mississippi entered Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market after a day of picking cotton in the brutal Mississippi sun, where he bought some bubble gum. No one will ever know exactly what transpired in the grocery store that day, but the kids with him would later report that Emmett either whistled at, flirted with, or lightly touched the hand of the owner's wife, Carolyn Bryant.
Four days after the incident at the store, on the morning of August 28, 1955, Carolyn's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J. W. Milam, entered Moses Wright's home and kidnapped Emmett. He was taken out and brutally beaten, dragged to the banks of the Tallahatchie River, shot in the head, bound with barbed wire, whereupon his mutilated corpse was duimped into the water. When Till's body was dragged out of the river four days later it was unrecognizable. Only from his father's ring on his finger was he able to be identified.
Till's body was shipped to Chicago, where his mother decided to have an open-casket funeral. Thousands upon thousands filed past the mutilated body of the fifteen year old at the Roberts Temple Church, all witness to one of the most brutal hate crimes in American history. Although it caused her unimaginable pain to see his body like this, Mamie Till wanted her son's body to be seen, 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 this was like."
In spite of the overwhelming evidence of their guilt, Bryant and Milam faced an all-white jury, since blacks were not allowed to serve as jurors in Mississippi at that time, and they were duly acquitted. The jury's deliberations lasted a total of one hour and seven minutes. A few months later Bryant and White confessed to the killing and gleefully described all of their brutal, unspeakeable actions. They then sold their story to Look Magazine for $4,000.
There was widespread outrage across the entire country at the injusice of the verdict, and people all over the country took to the streets to protest, but it is what inspired the beginning of the civil rights movement in our nation. One hundred days after Till's murder, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Birmingham, Alabama, the civil rights movement was born, and the rest is history.
Link: The Trail of Tears
Emmett Till and Rosa Parks photos from wikimedia commons
Acquittal photo from biography.com