Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was an African-American teenager from Chicago, Illinois, who was brutally lynched near the small town of Drew in Sunflower County, Mississippi. His murder was one of the key events that led to the birth of the civil rights movement.
In the summer of 1955, he left Chicago to visit his great uncle Moses Wright who lived in the small town of Money, Mississippi. Located in the Mississippi Delta, Till’s trip was taking him to a region where racially motivated murders were not unfamiliar. It has been estimated by some civil rights leaders that thousands of people have been lynched in this area. Racial tensions in the region were rising even higher after the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in schools.
Till arrived on August 21, 1955. On August 24, he joined other teenagers as they went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to get some refreshments. The market was owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant, and primarily served black sharecroppers and their families. While in the store, it is alleged that Till whistled at, or flirted with, Carolyn Bryant. Emmett Till was known to have a speech impediment, and in order to speak clearly he would whistle softly before speaking. This action, explicit or not, greatly angered her and her husband who, along with his half-brother J.W. Milam, decided to “teach the boy a lesson.”
On August 28, at around 2:30 p.m., Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home. According to witnesses, they drove him to a weathered plantation shed in neighboring Sunflower County where they brutally beat him until he was unrecognizable. One of his eyes was gouged out and he was shot with a .45 caliber pistol. Then the pair, using barbed wire, attached a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan around Till’s neck to weigh his body down. His body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River near the small town of Glendora, MS. The boy’s corpse was found several days later, disfigured and decomposing in the Tallahatchie River. The boy’s body was so savagely beaten that Moses Wright could identify the body only by an initialed ring which had belonged to Emmett’s father, Louis Till.
J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant were arrested on August 29 after spending the night with relatives living in Ruleville, MS, only several miles away from where the murder actually took place. At first, both men admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle’s home but claimed they released him the same night.
The trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant began on September 19, 1955, at the Tallahatchie County courthouse in the city of Sumner. Dozens of reporters from around the country had invaded the tiny Delta town. There would be no black jurors because in a county where nearly 65 per cent of the 32,000 residents were black, there was not a single registered black voter. On September 23, the jury, made up of 12 white males, acquitted both defendants. Deliberations took just 67 minutes; one juror said they took a “soda break” to stretch the time to over an hour. This verdict outraged people around the globe and was an integral piece in the birth of the civil rights movement.
Many of the people who would later be a part of the civil rights movement considered themselves to be part of the “Emmett Till Generation.”
In 2007, The Emmett Till Memorial Commission, a multiracial group of citizens created by the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors, held a memorial service for Emmett Till. At the memorial, members of the commission presented a “Call for Justice” which included an apology to Emmett Till’s family and a call for truth and justice in Tallahatchie County and in Mississippi. The commission also presented the first of a series of historical markers in the county to explain the history of Emmett Till’s murder.
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