Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 after he whistled at a white woman. The woman’s husband and his half-brother took Till from his great-uncle’s house, beat him unmercifully, shot him in the head, and threw him into the Tallahatchie River tied to a heavy piece of machinery. His body was recovered three days later. Within two weeks, the pair was found not guilty of murder by a white jury. When Till’s mother insisted on an open casket at his funeral, a picture of his mutilated body was published, setting off nationwide protest over the verdict and strongly stimulating the emerging civil rights movement.
Who Was Emmett Till?
Emmett Louis Till was born in Chicago on July 25, 1941, the son of Mamie and Louis Till. His parents separated after Louis became abusive, and Mamie and Emmett lived with her mother, Alma Gaines, for several years. Louis joined the US Army and Mamie worked for various government offices in the Chicago area. She received support from her estranged husband until 1945, when the elder Till was court-martialed and executed in Italy on charges of willful misconduct; it was many years before Mamie learned the details of those charges, which included rape and murder.
Emmett Till spent his early years in a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Many members of his mother’s family were nearby, including her sister, Hallie Mae Parker, who lived next door with her family. Hallie Mae’s son Wheeler became Emmett’s best friend.
When Emmett was nine, he and his mother moved to Detroit, where her father, Wiley Nash Carthan, lived. While she worked long hours, Emmett willingly took on the household chores. However, Emmett became homesick for his Chicago friends and family, and his mother allowed him to move back with his aunt and uncle temporarily. His mother soon remarried, and after her new husband, Pink Bradley, was laid off from the Chrysler plant, they moved back to Chicago, although not to their old neighborhood. A year later, Mamie separated from Pink, and she and Emmett were on their own again. Emmett once more took over the housework. When he was twelve, his mother married Gene Mobley. Emmett got along well with Gene and enjoyed having him as a father figure. He was growing up to be a happy, responsible boy who loved to make people laugh, although some friends remembered him using his size and weight to get his own way. Others remembered him as a show-off, while his cousin Wheeler believed Emmett was born to be a leader.
The summer Emmett turned fourteen, his great-uncle, Moses Wright, visited from Mississippi. Wright invited his grandson Wheeler Parker to return with him to enjoy a vacation in the country with his children. Emmett wanted desperately to go, too, but his mother refused because she had already planned a vacation trip and wanted Emmett to go along. She also felt that there was too much potential for trouble in the South for a black boy not familiar with its laws and customs segregating blacks and whites. In the end she gave in and let him go, after lecturing him on the rules of Jim Crow and the importance of avoiding dangerous situations. She also received Wright’s promise that he would not let the boys go anywhere alone.
The Tragic Ending
A few days after they arrived in Mississippi, Emmett and his cousins went to a store nearby to get a snack. Run by a young white couple, the Bryants, the store served the black population of the small town of Money. Before he left the store, Emmett Till whistled at the young woman behind the counter, after which all the boys scattered, knowing he had crossed the line. They laid low, hoping the incident would blow over, but lived in fear all the while.
Their fears were realized a few nights later when Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, came to Moses Wright’s house with a gun and took Emmett away. Helpless to stop them, the family waited in anguished hope that Emmett would come home. Three days later, the boy’s body, disfigured from beating and with a heavy cotton gin fan tied around his neck, was found in the Tallahatchie River. He was missing an eye and most of his teeth, and he had been shot in the head. Wright was able to identify Emmett only by the signet ring on his finger, which had belonged to Emmett’s father, Louis. The local sheriff, H. C. Strider, wanted to bury Emmett immediately to avoid questions about the state of his body, but Mamie Mobley insisted on bringing her boy home.
When she saw what the killers had done to her son, Mobley was overcome with grief and horror, but she was also angry. She decided to hold a public funeral with an open casket to let the country see what could happen to a black boy in the segregated South. She allowed a reporter from Jet, a weekly publication for African Americans, to photograph the body and print the picture in the magazine. Fifty thousand people were reported to have attended the viewing, and tens of thousands more saw the photograph.
Bryant and Milam were quickly identified as the killers and held without bail. Within two weeks they received a trial in the segregated courthouse of Sumner, Mississippi. In a move as stunning as Mobley’s decision to display her son’s body, Moses Wright resolved to testify at the trial, although he knew he was risking his life by doing so. He pointed out the suspects as the two men who had come to his house and taken Emmett away. Another witness, Willie Reed, testified that he had seen Emmett in a truck with the suspects and several other men and had heard them beating him inside a barn. In spite of their testimony, an all-white, male jury found the defendants not guilty. They had deliberated for slightly more than an hour and made the decision based on the inability to positively identify Emmett Till’s mutilated body. Bryant and Milam were released. Wright and Reed fled to Chicago.
Protests Further Civil Rights Movement
Protests erupted all over the country and letters poured into the White House demanding justice. Mobley began to travel, making speeches in churches and homes and inspiring African Americans to demand an end to Jim Crow laws and discrimination in the courts. A year earlier, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court had declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) knew the Till case would further galvanize the movement for civil rights. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a local NAACP secretary, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man, which triggered the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The boycott was led by a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., who insisted on nonviolent action, even after his house was bombed. Although Parks was not the plaintiff, the NAACP supported a federal civil action lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, challenging the constitutionality of the segregated buses, and won. The city took the case to the Supreme Court, which upheld the federal court ruling, ending segregated busing. The successful court action and the movement’s strong leadership led to marches, further challenges of Jim Crow laws, and the continued advancement of the civil rights movement through the efforts of citizens of all races.