On Aug. 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was visiting Mississippi relatives when the unthinkable happened.
He was in town from Chicago, visiting relatives in the small town of Money, Miss. Days earlier, Till, who was black, allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman. On the evening of Aug. 28, Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, along with his half-brother John William Milam, kidnapped the 14-year-old from his great-uncle’s home. The two men tortured and shot the boy before dumping his body in the nearby Tallahatchie River.
Till’s body was held down by the weight of a 70-pound fan that Milam and Bryant tied to the boy’s neck with barbed wire.
Three days later, Till’s lifeless body surfaced miles downstream.
Till was buried in Alsip, Ill., by his mother, who famously insisted her son have an open-casket funeral.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, held a viewing on Sept. 6. Her son’s face had been brutally disfigured during the attack, but she maintained that there would be an open casket. She wanted the world to see the type of violence that was unleashed on her son for doing little more than existing. Just 14 years old, Emmett Till was an innocent child.
Even by today’s standards, photos of Till in the casket are considered particularly gruesome. It was a vision of pure, unadulterated hate. That’s why it was so important for the public to see what had become of young Emmett. Historian David Halberstam called these photos “the first great media event of the civil rights movement.”
Weeks later, an all-white jury acquitted Till’s killers after about an hour of deliberation.
During the trial, Bryant and Milam’s defense team argued that the body Till’s mother showed and buried was mutilated beyond recognition, therefore there was no way of knowing whether it was Till. In other words, the killers’ brutality served as the perfect defense.
His killers later admitted their role in his death, but evaded jail time.
Bryant and Milam admitted to Till’s murder in an interview with Look magazine the following year. Though the interview flew in the face of their own defense, they were free and clear, since double jeopardy prevented prosecutors from trying them again.
Till’s death helped spark the modern civil rights movement.
For context on where Till falls into the timeline of the fight for civil rights, here’s a helpful paragraph from History:
“Coming only one year after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of racial segregation in public schools, Till’s death provided an important catalyst for the American Civil Rights Movement. One hundred days after Emmett Till’s murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama city bus, sparking the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott. Nine years later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing many forms of racial discrimination and segregation, one year later it passed the Voting Rights Act outlawing discriminatory voting practices.”
The civil rights movement isn’t past tense.
It’s easy to look at Till’s murder and think, “I can’t believe that happened.” It’s more disheartening when you look at Till’s murder and think, “I can’t believe this is still happening.” What Till experienced was in many ways similar to what Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others continue to experience in modern-day America.
Looking back on Till’s murder, it’s clear that he was failed by a society that didn’t value black lives and a justice system that delivered anything but. It’s clear that something needed to change, but has it? “Stand your ground” defenses and police officers claiming that unarmed black men make them fear for their lives aren’t that different from the excuses used by those who rallied for Till’s murderers’ acquittal.
How do we fix it? Let’s look to how Black Lives Matter activists are continuing the fight.
60 years later and the fight continues in memory of Emmett Louis Till.