On August 28, 1955 a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman. Till, who was raised in Chicago, was visiting his family in Mississippi when he spoke to a 21-year-old woman whose husband owned a grocery store.Â A few nights later Roy Bryant and his half brother J. W. Milam kidnapped Till, beat him badly, took out one of Till’s eyes, shot him through the head, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s body was found three days later with cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. Read more about Emmett Till after the jump.
Till was returned to Chicago and his mother, who had raised him mostly by herself, insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of the killing. Tens of thousands attended his funeral or viewed his casket and images of his mutilated body were published in black magazines and newspapers, rallying popular black support and white 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. The trial attracted a vast amount of press attention. Bryant and Milam were acquitted of Till’s kidnapping and murder, but months later, protected by double jeopardy, they admitted to killing him in a magazine interview. Till’s murder is noted as one of the leading events that motivated the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
Problems identifying Till affected the trial, partially leading to Bryant’s and Milam’s acquittals, and the case was officially reopened by the United States Department of Justice in 2004. As part of the investigation, the body was exhumed and autopsied resulting in a positive identification. He was reburied in a new casket, which is the standard practice in cases of body exhumation. His original casket was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Events surrounding Emmett Till’s life and death, according to historians, continue to resonate with people, and almost every story about Mississippi returns to Till, or the region in which he died, in “some spiritual, homing way”.