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Till, Emmett

Till, Emmett

July 25, 1941
August 28, 1955

Emmett Louis Till was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. When he was fourteen, his parents sent him to Le-Flore County, Mississippi, to visit his uncle for the summer. That summer Till bragged to his friends about northern social freedoms and showed them pictures of a white girl he claimed was his girlfriend. His friends, schooled in the southern rules of caste based on black deference and white supremacy, were incredulous. One evening they dared Till to enter a store and ask the white woman inside, Carolyn Bryant, for a date. Till entered the store, squeezed Bryant's hand, grabbed her around the waist, and propositioned her. When she fled and returned with a gun, he wolf-whistled at her before being hurried away by his friends.

Till's act of youthful brashness crossed southern social barriers that strictly governed contact between black men and white women. In Mississippi, where the Ku Klux Klan was newly revived and African Americans were impoverished and disfranchised, these barriers were strictly enforced by the threat of social violence. On August 28, 1955, Carolyn Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half brother, J. W. Milam, abducted Till from his uncle's home, brutally beat him, shot him in the head, and then dumped his naked body in the Tallahatchie River. Till's mangled and decomposed body was found three days later, and his uncle named both men as the assailants. Bryant and Milam were tried for murder. Despite the fact that the two men had admitted abducting Till, they were acquitted on September 23 by an all-white jury because the body was too mangled to be definitively identified.

The verdict unleashed a storm of protest. Till's mother, Mamie Till, had insisted on an open-casket funeral, and pictures of Till's disfigured body featured in Jet magazine had focused national attention on the trial. Till's age, the innocence of his act, and his killers' immunity from retribution represented a stark and definitive expression of southern racism to many African Americans. Demonstrations were organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and black leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois demanded antilynching legislation and federal action on civil rights.

Emmett Till's lynching was a milestone in the emergent civil rights movement. Outrage over his death was key to mobilizing black resistance in the Deep South. In addition, black protest over the lack of federal intervention in the Till case was integral to the inclusion of legal mechanisms for federal investigation of civil rights violations in the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

In 1959 Roy and Carolyn Bryant and Milam told their stories to journalist William Bradford Huie. Only Milam spoke for the record, but what he revealed was tantamount to a confession. Huie's interviews were subsequently published in 1959 as a book titled Wolf Whistle. The NAACP, Mamie Till, and other civil rights leaders continued to call for justice and in May 2004, after new evidence was uncovered by documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, the Justice Department reopened the Till case. Till's body was exhumed for autopsy on June 1, 2005.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Lynching; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); United States Commission on Civil Rights


Metress, Christopher. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free Press, 1988.

robyn spencer (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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