An American tragedy — the lynching of Emmett Till

Photo of Emmett Till by Mamie Till Mobley for PBS series American Experience.
Photo of Emmett Till by Mamie Till Mobley for PBS series American Experience.

65 years ago, a Jim Crow-era murder in Mississippi shocked the nation

He was one of the early and most important figures of the civil rights movement.

Yet Emmett Till lived only one month past his 14th birthday — not long enough to realize his position as a freedom fighter, his name sometimes mentioned in the same breath as other monumental figures of social change such as John Lewis or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

ExploreAug. 28, 1955: The day Emmett Till launched a movement

Unlike those heroes, however, Till only came to be known posthumously.

A kind and fun-loving kid from Chicago, Till was on summer vacation in Mississippi 65 years ago, visiting a great-uncle on his mother’s side of the family, when two white men abducted him in the middle of the night, beat and tortured the boy, then shot him in the head before throwing his lifeless body into a nearby river.

Till was found there three days later, on Aug. 28, 1955.

His cold-blooded murder was predetermined by the color of his skin and the greater forces of systemic racism — including lynchings — that had already been deeply woven in the fabric of the nation many years before his birth.

By the time Emmett’s short life began in 1941, lynchings of Black people had become a customary feature of American life, especially throughout the South in the decades after the Civil War.

During the eras of Reconstruction, Jim Crow and civil rights, bands of white vigilantes usually led by the Ku Klux Klan were notorious for carrying out lynchings, bombings and assassinations on Black people with impunity, and with few — if any — legal consequences.

The majority who carried out the premeditated hate crimes were never held responsible, meaning nearly all the slayings remain cold cases to this day.

Historians say lynchings such as Emmett Till’s were designed to instill terror in the Black community and set vicious examples that would uphold the idea of white supremacy.

During the lynching era, it was not uncommon for the deaths of Black men to be ruled as suicides to cover up murders by white mobs and police officers, according to The Washington Post. Mississippi law enforcement was notorious for turning a blind eye to the racially motivated crimes.

At the time of Till’s murder, Black people still didn’t have the right to vote.

Memories of the pervasive atrocities are still an open wound for the minority community, who increasingly view modern-day police shootings as an extension of the brutal era.

ExploreWeekend Read from the AJC

An American tragedy

The odds seemed to be stacked against Emmett Till from the start.

He was born on July 25, 1941 and his family affectionately called him “Bobo.”

When he was just shy of his fourth birthday in 1945, his father Louis Till, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II, was executed by hanging after being found guilty of rape and murder while stationed in Italy. He was only 23.

Two years later, at age 6, Emmett contracted polio, which reportedly left him with a speech impediment.

By all accounts he was a happy-go-lucky child, known for being a “mischievous peacemaker,” surviving family members said earlier this year. Emmett was raised by his mother and grandmother in Chicago, where the family migrated to from Mississippi during his mother Mamie’s childhood. They lived in a comfortable brick two-flat in a middle-class neighborhood on the city’s South Side.

He had an amiable smile.

Emmett was also known for being a practical joker and a sharp dresser — the only photos of the boy always showed him in a collar shirt and tie, and sometimes wearing a pork pie hat.

By the time he turned 14, Emmett had grown husky — he stood about 5 feet, 4 inches and weighed about 150 pounds, according to historical accounts.

Earlier that summer, his great-uncle, a sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, arrived in Chicago telling fantastic tales about life in the country that intrigued the boy.

Mamie Till Mobley and her son, Emmett Till, whose lynching in 1955 became a catalyst for the civil rights movement, in an undated photo taken in Chicago.
Mamie Till Mobley and her son, Emmett Till, whose lynching in 1955 became a catalyst for the civil rights movement, in an undated photo taken in Chicago.

Credit: Courtesy Mamie Till Mobley Family/The New York Times

Credit: Courtesy Mamie Till Mobley Family/The New York Times

His mother later agreed to allow Emmett to go there instead of traveling with her to Nebraska for summer break, but not before she gave the boy a dire warning about racial tensions in the South.

She knew it was a perilous time for Black people and admonished her only son to carefully watch his words and manners around white people.

A racial tinderbox

Racial tensions were running hot in 1955 ― a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public facilities in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling which overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson.

Racial tensions were running hot in Mississippi in 1955 ― a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public facilities in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling which overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson.
Racial tensions were running hot in Mississippi in 1955 ― a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public facilities in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling which overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson.

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

When World War II ended 10 years earlier, Black soldiers from the South returned home demanding equal rights, leading to a resurgence of Jim Crow laws, ostensibly designed to disenfranchise them. The hope and resolve of Black people were strengthened after Brown v. Board in 1954, but segregationists also determined to resist the federal ruling or, for that matter, anything else that resembled social equality.

Mississippi in those days was a tinderbox — a world mostly unknown to Emmett Till until he arrived there for summer vacation.

Around that time, white Southern legislators were disgruntled about liberal principles of equality for Black people beginning to creep into mainstream conscience, which they saw as a threat to racist customs and values. As a result, new laws were put on the books to discourage integration, including a ban on interracial relationships.

The mere suggestion of a Black man interacting in any way with a Southern white woman during these times carried unmitigated risk, as the murder of Till would ultimately prove.

» THIS WEEK: Wrongly convicted of rape, innocent man to walk free after 44 years

A week before Emmett arrived in Mississippi, Lamar Smith, a Black political activist, was gunned down in front of a courthouse in the town of Brookhaven. Historical accounts say three white suspects were arrested but quickly released.

On Aug. 21, the young boy, with his whole life seemingly ahead of him, stepped off a train in Money, Mississippi, a small one-stoplight town with a few hundred residents comprised of mostly farmers and sharecroppers. There were only three stores in the community, along with one school, a post office and a cotton gin.

A week later, Emmett Till would be dead.

That fateful day

His body was found in the Tallahatchie River on a Sunday.

Three days earlier, Emmett Till and his older cousin were exhausted from working the cotton fields all day and reportedly skipped church to hang out for a bit.

They met up with a few local boys and wound up at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, where they planned to buy candy.

Inside was where Emmett was said to have had an encounter with Carolyn Bryant, the 21-year-old wife of the store’s proprietor, Roy Bryant.

The woman had been tending to the store mostly alone that day, according to several historical accounts.

One version of events said Till whistled suggestively at Bryant either as a joke or a dare with his friends, but other accounts disputed this claim, saying Till whistled outside the store but never toward the woman. The boys left quickly when they saw Carolyn Bryant fetching a pistol from the front seat of a family car.

Word reportedly spread like wildfire about the alleged incident, fueled by the false perception that a Black person had possibly assaulted a white woman.

Some of the townspeople in the area at the time warned the boys to flee, which they did. Meanwhile, Bryant’s husband heard through the grapevine what happened and was reportedly livid that his wife hadn’t told him about the matter beforehand.

Vigilante justice

Roy Bryant took it upon himself to investigate and in his anger turned from grocer to vigilante. It didn’t take him long to learn who Emmett Till was and where he was staying.

Historical accounts say Bryant scoured the town the same night with his half-brother J.W. Milam until they found Till’s uncle’s house about 3 o’clock in the morning, broke inside and snatched the sleeping child from his bed.

In this September 1955 file photo, J.W. Milam, left, and Roy Bryant, right, sit with their wives in a courtroom in Sumner, Mississippi. Milam and Bryant were acquitted of the murder of Emmett Till.
In this September 1955 file photo, J.W. Milam, left, and Roy Bryant, right, sit with their wives in a courtroom in Sumner, Mississippi. Milam and Bryant were acquitted of the murder of Emmett Till.

Credit: The Associated Press

Credit: The Associated Press

They threw him in the back of a pickup truck and took him to a shed owned by Milam and tortured the boy for through the night before ultimately killing him, according to a recent report by The Guardian.

Passersby recounted hearing Till’s screams for help, saying “Mama, please save me!”; “Please, God, don’t do it again!”

As night turned to day, Till was shot above the right ear and his body crudely delivered to the river, where he was found days later weighed down by a cotton gin fan.

This type of white mob justice was nothing new in Mississippi and in many cities throughout the South as the U.S. legal system turned a blind eye to the slayings of innocent Black citizens, rarely investigating and prosecuting such crimes.

The Ku Klux Klan also joined forces with Southern police departments and governments to carry out murders and oppose desegregation efforts throughout the civil rights movement.

Acquittal and confessions

Both men involved in Till’s murder were quickly arrested and charged with first-degree murder, but they were acquitted a month later by an all-white male jury. The deliberations lasted only a little more than an hour. Because Black people lacked the right to vote at the time, there were none on the jury.

Months later, the two men confessed to killing Till in an interview with Look magazine in exchange for $4,000, however, because of the precedent of double jeopardy in U.S. law, they were never tried again for the murder.

Carolyn Bryant Donham had her own reckoning many years later after having aged into her 70s.

She admitted in Timothy Tyson’s 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till” that she lied during the murder trial when she testified that Till flirted and made sexual advances toward her inside the store. But her family subsequently denied she ever made the confession, and Bryant never gave another public statement about the case.

A historic marker has been placed outside the store in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till had his fateful encounter with the wife of a white grocery store owner.
A historic marker has been placed outside the store in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till had his fateful encounter with the wife of a white grocery store owner.

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

In 1955, she testified under oath that Till had grabbed her by the arm and waist in a relentless pursuit. The boys with Till that day, however, always maintained his innocence.

The FBI first reopened the Till case in 2004.

The following year, Till’s body was exhumed for an official autopsy, but officials decided not to press charges, according to The Associated Press. The case was turned over to local prosecutors, with the FBI suggesting a closer look at Bryant’s former wife, who is now 86 years old.

A Mississippi grand jury ruled in 2007 that there was insufficient evidence to indict her, essentially closing the book on the case, the AP reported at the time.

» FROM JULY: FBI exhumes body of man featured in recent ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ episode

Till’s family sat down with federal investigators to discuss the final results of the autopsy in 2007, which found Till died of a gunshot wound to the head and that he had broken wrist bones and skull and leg fractures.

The FBI began looking into the case again in 2017 after Carolyn Bryant’s confession in Tyson’s book but have yet to announce any new developments.

An unspeakable crime

Till’s murder was as horrifying as it was unspeakable and left the boy unrecognizable to his own mother.

After viewing Emmett’s body for the first time, Mamie Till said she saw her son’s “right eye lying midway of his chest, his nose broken like someone took a meat chopper to it, and a bullet hole which I could look through and see daylight on the other side.”

Heartbroken, she allowed for an open casket, saying she “wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”

A graphic photo of Till’s mutilated face appeared in Jet magazine and shocked the nation. Hundreds of thousands lined the streets to view his corpse in the four days leading up to his funeral in Chicago.

The outrage at the time was similar to that felt in the aftermath of George Floyd’s police custody death in May, with Time magazine declaring “the public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see.”

A history of lynching

Thousands of Black Americans just like Emmett Till were murdered with impunity primarily in the decades around the turn of the 20th century.

Lynchings were overt public displays of white power that were used as a means to terrorize, intimidate and exert social control over minorities.

Women and children attended the spectacles where people were known to take pictures of victims and then send them through the mail as postcards.

In 2000, a writer for Time magazine noted: “Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz, but lynching scenes became a burgeoning subdepartment of the postcard industry. By 1908, the trade had grown so large, and the practice of sending postcards featuring the victims of mob murderers had become so repugnant, that the U.S. Postmaster General banned the cards from the mails.”

The rise in the number of lynchings in the late 1800s was so dramatic that U.S. institutions began collecting statistics on lynchings about 1882.

According to the Tuskegee Institute, 4,743 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968 in the United States, including 3,446 Blacks and 1,297 whites. More than 73% of lynchings in the post–Civil War period occurred in the Jim Crow South, and many more were carried out in the Midwest and border states. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 4,084 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950 in the South.

Lynchings were most common between 1876 and 1930, but the manner of killing was not limited to hangings. Victims were slain in a variety of other ways, including shootings, burnings, pushing people off bridges or dragging them behind cars. Body parts, including ears and noses, could be taken as trophies.

During the civil rights movement, lynchings went from a mostly public spectacle by mobs to being carried out in the shadows by hate groups and vigilantes.

The George Floyd effect

The fight for equal rights is still going in 2020.

The videotaped death of George Floyd on Memorial Day as a Minneapolis police officer held him down with a knee on his neck for nearly eight minutes sparked protests around the world and reminded Black Americans that the struggle over race is far from over.

“It was a modern-day lynching,” said Arica Coleman, a historian, cultural critic and author, according to National Geographic.

“This man was lying helplessly on the ground. He’s subdued. There’s the cop kneeling on his neck. This man is pleading for his life. To me, that is the ultimate display of power of one human being over another. Historically, you could be lynched for anything.”

Since Floyd’s death, polls have revealed a dramatic shift in how Americans view police violence, with most now acknowledging that Black people are more likely to be targeted, mistreated or even killed by those who are sworn to serve and protect.

On the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington Friday, Black families from across the country participated in a virtual and in-person March on Washington called the “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks.”

The event was organized as a tribute to recent victims of police violence, including Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Andres Guardado, Jacob Blake, and many more.

‘America’s Disappeared’

Emmett Till’s case reveals that unpunished murders were still being carried out in the mid-1950s.

He was one of many hundreds who died as a result of racial violence from 1930 to 1960, according to The New York Times, which described the victims of this period as “America’s Disappeared.”

The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush, authorized the federal government to reopen these cold cases for investigation and prosecution.

The hope was that new technologies and investigations by the FBI might reveal some new leads, but many of these homicides can no longer be prosecuted as evidence, suspects and witnesses have passed into history.

The law was named for Till because his case epitomized the complete failure of the legal system to seek justice for minority victims of racial violence.

As of 2015, only one case had resulted in a conviction. James Fowler, a state police officer, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served six months in prison in the fatal 1964 shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

The Emmett Till Act was reauthorized on Dec. 10, 2016.

The aftermath

Till’s death was a crucial piece of the civil rights struggle and shined a spotlight on the brutality of the Jim Crow South, which ultimately led to greater social change.

One hundred days after Till’s murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

In 1960, Mamie Till-Mobley graduated from Chicago Teachers College and became an educator and civil rights activist. She died in 2003.

Eight years to the day after Till’s slaying, on Aug. 28, 1963, more than 200,000 people descended on the National Mall in Washington as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

King’s historic words that day continue to reverberate 57 years later: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ’When will you be satisfied?’ he said. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, but Black people still didn’t receive full voting rights until the following year when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That legislation came about mostly as a result of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when Alabama state troopers attacked peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with tear gas and billy clubs.

The pivotal moment, like Till’s death, exposed the caste system and changed popular opinion of the time, much like George Floyd’s death sparked increased calls for social change today.

Through the years, additional hate crimes continued to serve as a reminder to the Black community not to become complacent.

The murder of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963, went unpunished for more than 30 years after two all-white juries failed to reach a verdict, but on Feb. 5, 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was finally found guilty and he died in prison in 2001.

Convictions, however, were handed down for other similar evil acts. Several members of the Klan were found guilty of murder in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 and for the deaths of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.

An unrepentant Roy Bryant lived free the rest of his days and died of cancer in 1994 at age 63.

The nation’s most recent known lynching happened on June 7, 1998, when three white supremacists dragged James Byrd Jr. for three miles behind a pickup truck along an asphalt road in Jasper, Texas. His dismembered body was dumped in front of a local cemetery. Unlike many others who got away with similar crimes, two of Byrd’s killers received the death penalty and were executed in 2011 and 2019, respectively. The third convict will be eligible for parole in year 2038.

Till’s family members have established the Justice for Emmett Till campaign which helps counsel other families of loved ones killed during the civil rights era.

Remnants of a vicious past

The hateful vestiges of Jim Crow-era lynchings are still apparent and being used today to intimidate Black people.

Throughout June, during the height of protests over Floyd’s death, noose sightings were reported in at least 11 cities around the country, although six separate incidents that were initially thought to be racist displays turned out to be false alarms.

»Despite false alarm at NASCAR, nooses sighted in 11 cities across U.S.

One of the false-positives included the incident at Talladega Superspeedway, where a knotted rope was found hanging in the garage of NASCAR’s only Black driver, Bubba Wallace. The FBI released a statement calling the incident a misunderstanding and concluded that no crime had been committed.

Also that month, a sudden string of hangings involving Black and Hispanic Americans in three states had communities on edge about the possibility of lynchings, but officials ultimately declared each of the five separate cases suicides.

»5 people of color have died in hangings across country

But given the nation’s history, suspicions were rampant.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said at the time that she believed “there could be more to the story after an eerie pattern of recent suicides where Black men were found hanging from trees.”

A Black civil rights activist from Bloomington, Indiana, said he was the victim of an “attempted lynching” on the Fourth of July after a group of white men claimed he was trespassing on private property at Lake Monroe and attacked him and a group of friends, according to news reports.

One of the five assailants wore a Confederate flag hat and threatened to “get a noose,” while another yelled the phrase “white power,” according to reports.

The Anti-Defamation League classifies a hangman’s noose as a hate symbol that is primarily used to intimidate Blacks.

Notably, there is also no current federal law against lynching.

There is bipartisan legislation languishing in Congress that would make lynching a federal crime, but the bill is being delayed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who argues the language in the bill is too broad and the law might be wrongfully applied.

ArLuther Lee writes about national and international news for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida and has worked for newspapers for more than 24 years. He joined the AJC staff as the front page designer in 2003.

More in-depth reports

»Trump’s vow to end payroll tax threatens Social Security

»The 1619 Project reopens book on slavery but not without controversy

»Remembering Jerry Garcia 25 years after his death

»Social media giants struggle to contain viral ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy theory

»Obama warned of pandemic threat in 2014, but Republicans blocked funding

»Police unions brace for fight as calls grow to ‘defund’ law enforcement

»The strange case of Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee, an enduring mystery after 49 years

»‘Psycho,’ Hitchcock’s masterpiece, stunned moviegoers 60 years ago