Emmett Till: Putting a Face to Racial Violence

Emmett Till, a 14-year-old-boy raised on Chicago’s South Side, visited his uncle in Mississippi in August of 1955. The events that occurred during his trip outraged the nation and gave a face to racial violence. Emmett Till forever stands as a martyr and victim of violent racism. His death helped fuel the powerful civil rights movement.

Credited as the birthplace of the White Citizens’ Council (WCC), an organization comprised of civic leaders determined to fight integration that spread throughout the South, Mississippi had a reputation for extreme racism. Although African Americans comprised an estimated 45 percent of the state population in the 1950s, only 5 percent were registered voters because both registering to vote and voting itself were so dangerous.

Consider these examples: Grocery store owner and NAACP field worker Reverend George Lee was shot and killed in Belzoni, Mississippi, for trying to vote. Weeks later, in Brookhaven, someone shot Lamar Smith dead in broad daylight, with witnesses present, for casting a ballot, but no arrests were made for either murder.

The murder of Emmett Till

Although she was born in Mississippi, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, grew up in Illinois and, like her son, had limited experience in Mississippi. In August 1955, she sent Emmett, accompanied by family members, to visit his great uncle Mose Wright near Money, Mississippi. Shortly after Emmett’s arrival in Mississippi, he and a few others, including his cousin Simeon Wright, went to the general store in Money for candy.

After purchasing the candy from Carolyn Bryant, a white woman whose husband owned the store, Emmett whistled at her. Three days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam came to Wright’s home in the middle of the night and kidnapped Emmett at gunpoint.

Although arrested for kidnapping, Bryant and Milam insisted that they had only talked to Emmett and had released him alive. A couple of days later, on August 31, a boy fishing in the Tallahatchie River found Emmett Till’s badly decomposed body. Authorities found a 75-pound fan from a cotton gin attached to his neck with barbed wire, a detached eye, and a bullet lodged in the skull, among other atrocities.

Emmett Till's impact on the nation

Despite attempts by some white Mississippians to bury Emmett there, Mamie Till returned her son’s body to Chicago and held an open-casket funeral to expose his brutalization to the world. An estimated 50,000 people viewed Emmett’s body.

Photos of the body, published by Jet Magazine, hit a nerve with African Americans throughout the nation. White people also responded strongly, as did the world. Emmett’s mutilated body exposed the United States’ apartheid, prompting thousands of dollars in donations to civil rights organizations.

With most of the nation outraged, Mississippi tried Bryant and Milam for murder. Testifying against the men in court, Wright, Till’s uncle, boldly pointed them out. Carolyn Bryant, on the decision of the judge, didn’t testify at all.

After deliberating for only an hour and seven minutes, the all-white jury in Sumner, Mississippi, acquitted the two men. The acquittal generated more outrage, making Emmett Till a martyr. Many who later joined civil rights movements cited the lynching of Emmett Till as an impetus.

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