Emmett Till murdered
Black SNCC activists often refer to themselves as “the Emmett Till Generation.” He was their age, and the gruesome photos of Emmett Till’s badly swollen body published in Jet magazine and Chicago Defender struck an angry chord in them, as well as provoked outrage across the nation.
In the summer of 1955, Emmett “Bobo” Till had taken a train from his home in Chicago, Illinois to visit his great uncle, Moses Wright, in Mississippi. The fourteen-year-old had grown up in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side and attended a segregated elementary school, but nothing could compare to the South’s segregation.
On the evening of August 24, 1955, after spending most of the morning and afternoon picking cotton, Till and a carload of boys drove to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in nearby Money for candy and drinks.
It is possible that as they gathered outside the store, Till bragged about having a white girlfriend back in Chicago. “One of the other boys told Till there was a pretty lady in the store and that he should go in and see her.” Carolyn Bryant, “the pretty lady in the store,” would later testify that Till entered the store, grabbed her hand, and asked her on a date as he paid for his bubblegum. As Bryant pulled her hand away, she claimed, Emmett asked her, “‘What’s the matter baby, can’t you take it?’” It seems unlikely, but fact or fiction, the charge was enough to justify murder in the white supremacist Mississippi of the day.
Three nights later, Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband and owner of the store) and his half-brother J. W. Milam appeared at Moses Wright’s home armed, ordering him to turn over “the one that done the talking up at Money.” The 64-year-old sharecropper begged the two white men to “just take [Emmett] out in the yard and whip him,” but the kidnappers intended to kill. They shot Till in the head, tied a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan around his neck and threw him in the Tallahatchie River.
Three days later, a fisherman found Till’s body. His face was so badly mutilated that Wright only positively identified his grand-nephew by a silver ring on his finger–engraved with the initials “L.T.” for Till’s father. The circumstantial evidence against Milam and Bryant was so overwhelming that they were arrested the same day.
The trial weeks later was a national spectacle. In addition to scores of national reporters, many of Sumner’s 600 residents were packed into the segregated courthouse. A Black murder at the hands of white men was nothing new in Mississippi, but Mamie Till’s defiant decision to “let the people see” what happened to her son had captured America’s attention.
Moses Wright, Till’s grieving great-uncle, risked his life from the witness stand. When asked if he could identify the men who abducted his nephew, Wright told the jury, “Thar he,” pointing first at Milam and then to Bryant. Three witnesses besides Wright also positively identified the defendants as Till’s killers.
The defense, on the other hand, argued that “the killing might have been planned and plotted by the NAACP.” The all-white jury’s verdict came after 68 minutes of deliberation: “not guilty.” The predominantly white courtroom erupted in applause. One juror joked that they would have reached the verdict sooner had they not taken a soda break.
Black teenagers like Sam Block and Joyce and Dorie Ladner identified personally with “this boy our age, who could have been one of our brothers.” As Joyce Ladner later remembered, “I can name you ten SNCC workers who saw that picture [of Till’s body] in Jet magazine, who remember it as the key thing about their youth that was emblazoned in their minds.”
Clayborne Carson, et al., eds., The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 37-43.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 55-57, 124, 425, 449n.
Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, eds., Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1991) 1-16.
Stanley Nelson, Producer and Director, The Murder of Emmett Till, Firelight Media, 2003. Transcript.
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 53-54, 142.
Timothy Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017).
Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (New York: Penguin Group, 2010), 48.