A responsible, funny, and high-spirited child was a normal description from those who knew Emmett Till. Emmett was and African-American child born on July 25, 1941, in Chicago, Illinois. This kid was murdered when he was only 14 years old, on August 28, 1955. The reason of his murder? Flirting with a white woman.
“Emmett was a funny guy all the time. He had a suitcase of jokes that he liked to tell. He loved to make people laugh. He was a chubby kid; most of the guys were skinny, but he didn’t let that stand in his way. He made a lot of friends at McCosh.” — Richard Heard, Till’s classmate and childhood friend.
While visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, Emmett and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy refreshments. There, he talked to Carolyn Bryant. She was a clerk at a small grocery store, and her husband was the proprietor. The details of what happened inside the store that day are not 100% clear. Some of Emmett’s friend later reported that he either whistled at, flirted with, or touched the hand of Carolyn.
Four days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam went to Emmett’s great-uncle’s house. They took him away to a barn, where they beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him through the head, then tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan and disposed his body in the Tallahatchie River.
It took three days to find his body and retrieve it from the river.
The body was returned to his mother in Chicago, where she insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of the killing.
“It never occurred to me that Bobo (Emmett) would be killed for whistling at a white woman.” — Simeon Wright, Emmett’s cousin
Because blacks and women were barred from serving jury duty, Bryant and Milam were tried before an all-white, all-male jury. In an act of extraordinary bravery, Moses Wright took the stand and identified Bryant and Milam as Till’s kidnappers and killers. At the time, it was almost unheard of for blacks to openly accuse whites in court, and by doing so, Wright put his own life in grave danger.
The defense’s primary strategy was arguing that the body pulled from the river could not be positively identified, and they questioned whether Till was dead at all. The defense asserted that Bryant and Milam had taken Till, but had let him go. They attempted to prove that Mose Wright could not identify Bryant and Milam as the men who took Till from his cabin.
Despite the evidence of the defendants’ guilt and widespread pleas for justice from outside Mississippi, on September 23, the panel of white male jurors acquitted Bryant and Milam of all charges.
In January 1956, Bryant and Milam admitted to committing the crime. Protected by double jeopardy laws, they told the whole story of how they kidnapped and killed Emmett Till to Look magazine for $4,000.
Through the constant attention it received, Till’s case became emblematic of the disparity of justice for blacks in the South. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) asked Mamie Till Bradley to tour the country relating the events of her son’s life, death, and the trial of his murderers. It was one of the most successful fundraising campaigns the NAACP had ever known.
NAACP operative Amzie Moore considers Till the start of the Civil Rights Movement, at the very least, in Mississippi.
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