On August 24, 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy visiting relatives in Mississippi, went with a group of other children to the Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, to get refreshments after a hot Mississippi day. The store was owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Mrs. Bryant was working behind the counter. Till allegedly whistled at Bryant, now termed a “wolf whistle”in Itta Bena writer Lewis Nordan’s book of the same title. Because it was unacceptable in the minds of white men that a black boy would whistle at a white woman, some local whites became outraged.
On August 28 at about 2:30 a.m., Roy Bryant and his half brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till from his great-uncle Moses Wright’s home. The two men brutally beat Till, shot him in the head, and then attached a large metal gin fan to his neck with barbed wire. Till was then thrown into the Tallahatchie River. The next day the two men were arrested on kidnapping charges and held without bond in Leflore County.
On August 31st, Till’s beaten, lifeless and water-damaged body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River. He was identified by a ring bearing his deceased father’s initials. His mother had given him the ring just before he got on the train for Money. Till’s body was taken back to Chicago for the funeral and burial. His mother requested an open casket so that everyone could see what the men had done. Jet magazine published pictures of the body and the story, sending shocks of outrage throughout the country.
The same day that Till was buried, Bryant and Milam were indicted on kidnapping and murder charges. They both pleaded not guilty and were jailed until the trial. Bryant and Milam were acquitted after a Tallahatchie County jury deliberated for only sixty-seven minutes. One juror was reported as having explained, “It wouldn’t have taken that long but we stopped to drink some pop.”The jury was all white and all male and consisted of nine farmers, two carpenters, and one insurance agent.
Bryant and Milam died in Mississippi of cancer, after living long lives of freedom. Not only were they never punished by the horrific crime they committed, but they actually bragged about murdering Till in a 1956 article in Look magazine.
Parker, Frank. Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi After 1965.
Payne, Charles. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom.