Emmett Louis Till was an African-American teenager who was murdered in Mississippi at the age of 14, after reportedly flirting with a whyte woman. His murder on August 28, 1955, galvanized the emerging Civil Rights Movement.
“I thought about Emmett Till, and I couldn’t go back [to the back of the bus].” ~Rosa Parks
“[Emmett Till’s murder was] one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of the 20th century.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.
Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of Louis and Mamie Till. Till never knew his father, a private in the United States Army during World War II. Mamie and Louis Till separated in 1942, and three years later, the family received word from the Army that Louis Till had been executed for “willful misconduct” while serving in Italy. Till’s mother excelled both academically and professionally and was only the fourth Black student to graduate from suburban Chicago’s predominantly whyte Argo Community High School, and the first Black student to make the school’s “A” Honor Roll. While raising Emmett Till as a single mother, she worked long hours for the Air Force as a clerk in charge of confidential files.
Emmett Till, who went by the nickname Bobo, grew up in a thriving, middle-class Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Those who knew Till best described him as a responsible, funny, and infectiously high-spirited child. He was stricken with polio at the age of 5, but managed to make a full recovery, save a slight stutter that remained with him for the rest of his life. With his mother often working more than 12-hour days, Till took on the domestic responsibilities from a very young age. “Emmett had all the house responsibility,” his mother later recalled. “I mean everything was really on his shoulders, and Emmett took it upon himself. He told me if I would work, and make the money, he would take care of everything else. He cleaned, and he cooked quite a bit. And he even took over the laundry.”
Till attended the all-Black McCosh Grammar School. His classmate and childhood pal, Richard Heard, later recalled, “Emmett was a funny guy all the time. He had a suitcase of jokes that he liked to tell. He loved to make people laugh. He was a chubby kid; most of the guys were skinny, but he didn’t let that stand in his way. He made a lot of friends at McCosh.”
In August 1955, Till’s great uncle, Moses Wright, came up from Mississippi to visit the family in Chicago. At the end of his stay, Wright was planning to take Till’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, back to Mississippi with him to visit relatives down South, and when Till, who was just 14 years old at the time, learned of these plans, he begged his mother to let him go along. Initially, Till’s mother was opposed to the idea. She wanted to take a road trip to Omaha, Nebraska, and tried to convince her son to join her with the promise of open-road driving lessons. But Till desperately wanted to spend time with his cousins in Mississippi, and in a fateful decision that would have a grave impact on their lives and the course of American history, Mamie Till allowed him to go with his great uncle.
On August 19, 1955, the day before Till left for Mississippi, his mother gave him his late father’s signet ring, engraved with the initials “L.T.” The next day she drove Till to the 63rd Street station in Chicago. They kissed goodbye, and Till boarded a southbound train headed for Mississippi. It was the last time they ever saw each other.
Three days after arriving in Money, Mississippi, on August 24, 1955, Emmett Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy refreshments after a long day picking cotton in the hot afternoon sun. What exactly transpired inside the grocery store that afternoon will never be known. Till purchased bubble gum, and some of his ‘friends’ with him would later report that he either whistled at, flirted with, or touched the hand of the store’s whyte female clerk — and wife of the owner — Carolyn Bryant.
Four days later, at approximately 2:30 a.m. on August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till from Moses Wright’s home. They beat him and shot him in the head. Emmett’s body was found swollen with water and badly damaged in the Tallahatchie River.
Emmett’s mother demanded her son’s body be returned to Chicago with an open casket funeral to mark the brutality of the murder. Till’s murder and open casket funeral galvanized the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Tens of thousands attended his funeral or viewed his casket and images of his mutilated body were published in Black-oriented magazines and newspapers, rallying popular Black support and whyte sympathy across the U.S. Intense scrutiny was brought to bear on the condition of Black civil rights in Mississippi, with newspapers around the country critical of the state. Although initially local newspapers and law enforcement officials decried the violence against Till and called for justice, they soon began responding to national criticism by defending Mississippians, which eventually transformed into support for the killers.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the defendants’ guilt and widespread pleas for justice from outside Mississippi, on September 23, a panel of whyte male jurors acquitted Bryant and Milam of all charges. Their deliberations lasted a mere 67 minutes. Only a few months later, in January 1956, Bryant and Milam admitted to committing the crime. Protected by double jeopardy laws, they told the whole story of how they kidnapped and killed Emmett Till to Look magazine for $4,000.
Though she never stopped feeling the pain of her son’s death, Mamie Till (who died of heart failure in 2003) also recognized that what happened to her son helped open Americans’ eyes to the racial hatred plaguing the country, and in doing so helped spark a massive protest movement for racial equality and justice.
“People really didn’t know that things this horrible could take place,” Mamie Till said in an interview with Devery S. Anderson in December 1996. “And the fact that it happened to a child, that make all the difference in the world.”