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The Murder of Emmett Till 
The History Cat Classroom
The Murder of Emmett Till 
The History Cat Classroom
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The Murder of Emmett Till


Emmett Till was just another black teenager from Chicago’s South Side before he decided to take that fateful trip to visit his mother’s relatives in Money, Mississippi. Like other rural southern towns, Money was also about as Jim Crow as you could get. Whites and blacks lived entirely separate lives, only coming into contact for strictly business reasons. Any hint of familiarity between whites and blacks would unleash a storm of white fury.


Till’s cousins understood the complex and confusing social rules that every black person in the South grew up knowing. Just like learning to walk and ride a bike, blacks learned from infancy that they never were supposed to look a white person in the eye, never shake hands with a white person, never argue with a white person or hint that they might be lying. And under no circumstances should a black man ever be too friendly with a white woman. Accidentally brushing up against her clothes or lighting the cigarette of a white woman could be interpreted as being ‘sassy’ or ‘fresh’.  Done to the wrong white woman, the situation could be fatal. This is exactly what happened to fourteen year old Till in the summer of 1955.


On August, 24th Till and his cousins decided to ditch church and headed to Bryant’s Grocery store (owned by a young white couple) to buy some candy. Along the way, Till bragged to his cousins about going to an integrated school in Chicago and being friends with white children. He even claimed to have dated white girls, something that Till’s Mississippi cousins could not even joke about without risking their lives. Caught up in the moment, Till’s cousins dared him to talk to the white woman behind the counter. And this is where the story gets fuzzy. Several witnesses claimed that Till flirted with Carolyn Bryant and even wolf-whistled at her. Bryant, at her husband’s murder trial, claimed that Till tried to sexually assault her. Any contact between a black man and a white woman at that time was seen as “sexual assault”.


When his cousins realized what was going down they grabbed Till and ran back home. Till knew he had done something wrong, but he probably never realized that he had violated the cardinal rule of Jim Crow rule: white women and black men should mix like gasoline and a lit match.


 In the early morning hours of August 28th, Carolyn’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Millam showed up at the two-room shack of Till’s uncle demanding— at gunpoint— to be taken to the #$&@! who did the talkin’”. The two men kidnapped Till and took him to a nearby barn where he was pistol-whipped, shot in the head, had one of his eyes gouged out, his body was tied to a fan blade of a cotton gin with barbed wire and dumped into the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till’s corpse was discovered a few days later by a couple of boys out on a fishing trip.   


Bryant's Grocery Store catered to black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. After the trial, blacks boycotted the store and it went out of business.

Lynch Mob "Justice"


Like over three thousand other African-Americans, Till had become a victim of lynch mob “justice”. In the years after the Civil War, lynching became a popular method of dealing with people (white and black) who stepped “out of their place”. But, lynchings were not just perpetrated on black people. They didn’t always involve hanging. And they weren’t only confined to the southern states. But in the South protecting your honor was worth killing for. And so, many a lynch mob was quick to form a little more than a rumor.


Lynch mobs didn’t need evidence or witness testimony. Once the crowd had made up its mind of the guilt of the victim there was no going back. The mob, ranging from a few men to thousands, would show up at the victim’s house late at night, often days after the alleged crime had been committed. Often times the local Sheriff would be there dressed in white sheets. A beating was guaranteed and if you were lucky your death ended with a bullet to the head. Some lynch mobs used horrendous torture, even burning their victim alive while the crowd cheered as if they were at a football tailgate. The sickest part is that mothers might bring their kids along to throw a few sticks on the fire. This is how racism got passed down the generational ladder.


Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so that everyone could see what Mississippi justice looked like.  As the pictures of Till’s horribly mutilated corpse made their way around the world, people were outraged. How could something like this happen in an America that claimed to be the guardian of democracy?  Even some southern newspapers had said that murder had gone too far. Mississippi’s governor, Hugh L. White, promised a “vigorous prosecution” of the murderers. What they got instead was Jim Crow justice.


It took an-all white jury less than an hour— despite overwhelming evidence— to find Bryant and Millam “not guilty” of murder. But there was never a question of how that clown court was going to turn out. In fact, it came out later that the sheriff had instructed the jury to take their time to make it look good. But that’s how things worked in those days; no white jury ever convicted a white man for the murder of a black man who had been accused of violating the honor of a white woman. In fact, whites pretty much could do anything they pleased to a person of color without fear of ever seeing the inside of a jail cell.


Not only did juries refuse to return a guilty verdict, but the sheriff’s department and prosecution rarely worked all that hard to see that justice was served. The murder of Till and the resulting not guilty verdict helped raise the outrage that transformed the Civil Rights movement from an obscure black problem into a national movement to bury Jim Crow once and for all.


Take a closer look at lynching in the United States

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