The Lynching of Emmett Till

The horrific death of a Chicago teenager helped spark the civil rights movement

In the summer of 1955, Mamie Till gave in to her son's pleas to visit relatives in the South. But before putting her only son Emmett on bus in Chicago, she gave him a stern warning:

"Be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly."

Emmett, all of 14, didn't heed his mother's warning. On Aug. 27, 1955, Emmett was beaten and shot to death by two white men who threw the boy's mutilated body into the Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi.

Emmett's crime: talking and maybe even whistling to a white woman at a local grocery store.

Emmett's death came a year after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation. For the first time, blacks had the law on their side in the struggle for equality. Emmett's killing struck a cord across a nation. White people in the North were as shocked as blacks at the cruelty of the killing. The national media picked up on the story, and the case mobilized the NAACP, which provided a safe house for witnesses in the trial of the killers. Emmett became a martyr for the fledgling civil rights movement that would engross the country in a few years.

Mamie Till spoke out about her son's death. She held an open-casket funeral for her son, so that the world could see "what they did to my boy." Emmett's face was battered beyond recognition and he had a bullet hole in his head. The body had decomposed after spending several days underwater.

Roy Bryant, whose wife Carolyn was the white woman at the store, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, were tried for Emmett's murder and acquitted by a jury of 12 white men.

There are conflicting reports as to what Emmett said to Carolyn Bryant, who owned the store with her husband. By most accounts, Emmett and his cousin Curtis Jones, who was visiting from Chicago as well, were playing with other boys outside the store. Emmett pulled a picture of a white girl out of his wallet and boasted to the other boys that she was his girlfriend. The other boys seemed to think it was just bragging by a city boy from the North. But one boy suggested to Emmett go inside the store and talk to the white woman who was running the cash register, especially if he was so good with white women.

Emmett went inside, and by some accounts he whistled at Carolyn Bryant, who was 21 at the time. Others said he bought some gum and made a lewd suggestion to Bryant on the way out. Bryant testified at the trial that Emmett grabbed her and said, "Don't be afraid of me, baby. I been with white girls before."

In the segregated South, punishment for a black male who made a sexual suggestion a white woman was swift. Word got around about what had happened and Emmett's relatives suggested he get out of town as fast as possible.

He didn't leave fast enough. According to historian David Halberstam, Ron Bryant and Milam tracked Emmett down and pulled him from his uncle's house. The beat him but Emmett was unrepentant. So, they decided to kill Emmett to make an example of him. They took him to the river and made him strip down naked. "You still better than me?" Milam asked Emmett. "Yeah," the boy said. Milam shot him in the head. They tied Emmett's body to a cotton gin fan and dumped it into the river.

Unfortunately, Emmett's killing was only one of thousands of similar murders in the South, and his name is not well-known. But the case was an important turning point in America's civil rights struggle.



Emmett Till links

Emmett Till: Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement