3 September 2021
This Week’s History:
The murder of Emmett Till and discovery of his mutilated body unfolded over the last three days of August in 1955. Till, visiting relatives near Money, MS on summer vacation from his home in Chicago, IL, allegedly had an altercation with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman working the cash register at the local store she owned with her husband Roy Bryant, on 24 August. The details of the exchange between the two have never been determined, but the result was that four days later Roy Bryant and his half-brother JW Milam, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home, tortured, and murdered him before dumping the body in the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a seventy pound fan from a cotton gin. Despite the weight tied around his neck, Till’s body was pulled from the river 31 August after being discovered by fishermen.
Local officials in Mississippi attempted a quick burial, but Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted that his body be returned to Chicago, and upon seeing the condition of his body, insisted on an open-casket funeral. Multiple Black news outlets ran photographs of his mutilated body before the funeral which led to even more press, including national news outlets to pick up the coverage. Thousands lined up to view the body and thousands more attended the memorial service. Just over two weeks later, on 23 September, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury after a deliberation of only sixty-seven minutes. Carolyn Bryant reportedly recanted her testimony in 2008 saying, “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
Emmet Till’s legacy, a direct product of his mother’s courage both in standing up to southern white men determined to cover up the gruesome nature of the crime and in inviting the nation to see the true horrors of Jim Crow and lynching, has been credited with the expansion of the classic civil rights movement. Three months after the trial, Rosa Parks cited Till as her inspiration for refusing to move to the back of the bus, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After Bryant and Milam, free from double jeopardy, admitted to Look magazine in 1956 that they had, in fact, murdered Till, pressure mounted on Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which allowed the US Department of Justice to step in when local law enforcement or judicial systems were not protecting individuals’ civil rights.
References and Further Reading:
The Blood of Emmett Till, Timothy B Tyson, Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, Devery S Anderson, University Press of Mississippi, 2015.
“The Legacy of Emmett Till,” Philip C Kolin, Southern Quarterly, Summer 2008.
“The Shocking Story of an Approved Murder in Mississippi,” William C Hule, Look, January 1956, at PBS American Experience
“Nation Horrified by Murder of Kidnaped Chicago Youth,” Jet, September 15, 1955, pp. 6-9.
“Deadly 1921 Coal Miner Revolt in West Virginia Remembered,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“House Passes Bill Bolstering Landmark Voting Law,” The Washington Post
Until next week, take care,
Michele “Scout” Johnson
This series of posts to H-South, “Southern History and Civil Rights in the News,” aims to generate and track informed public discussions of southern history and civil rights. To recommend a reading, please email Dr. Michele Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org