How Emmett Till Changed the World
The brutal lynching of a black teen in Mississippi helped shape the civil-rights movement and became the first Black Lives Matter case.
Before Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, there was Emmett Till.
Till, a 14-year-old Chicago native, was brutally beaten and lynched while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, in the summer of 1955.
His crime? Allegedly whistling at a white woman.
This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the tragic murder of Emmett Till. There will be commemorative events honoring the life of the young teen in Chicago and Mississippi. And that’s because, according to Chris Benson, associate professor of African American studies and journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Till’s death still resonates today.
“The reason we are so captivated by the lynching of Emmett Till 60 years later is that it’s justice that has not been reached. It grates against our sense of justice in America that this horrible event has never been resolved,” says Benson, who co-authored the book, Death of Innocence with Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley. “We see so many similar cases coming up in the contemporary moment that remind us of the injustice in the Emmett Till case. When we see the case of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Tamir Rice, where young Black males are shot down by authority figures and nobody’s punished, it reminds us of the most celebrated case where a Black teen was killed and nobody was brought to justice.”
History notes that Till was with a group of teenagers who had stopped at a local grocery store to buy snacks when he broke Mississippi’s racial code of conduct. Just a year earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had announced separate but equal schools were unconstitutional in the historic Brown v. Board of education case. But things were still done a little differently in Mississippi. The state fought against any interruption in its system of segregation and often resorted to violence.
So it was in this space that four days after his alleged “crime,” Till was kidnapped in the wee hours of the morning on August 28, 1955 by two white men, Roy Bryant, husband of Carolyn Bryant, the store clerk Till allegedly whistled at, and J.W. Milam.
Bryant and Milan tortured Till for hours. He was brutally beaten. Barbed wire tied around his neck. He was shot in the head. The young teen was weighted with a cotton gin fan and thrown in the Tallatchie River. Three days later, Till’s bloated body surfaced, his face severely disfigured. He was identified by a ring on his finger, one his mother had given him that had his father’s initials.
When Till’s body arrived in Chicago, Mamie Till Mobley couldn’t believe her eyes. She wanted to show the world what Mississippi had done to her son, her only child. Mobley demanded an open-casket at Till’s funeral. His mutilated body was on display for five days as more than 100,000 folks lined the streets of Chicago to get a glimpse of what hate could do. The graphic images were published in Jet magazine and Black newspapers. Her decision changed the course of history.
“Opening that casket and allowing Emmett Till’s body to lay in state allowed people to witness the horrible face of race hatred,” said Benson. “It horrified people to the extent that they had never seen anything like this and to imagine that our children could be subjected to such horrors really moved people. So opening the casket opened our eyes to the injustice in this country and the consequences of that continued injustice if we didn’t do something about it.”
But justice would never come.
It took just little more than an hour for an all-white male jury to acquit Bryant and Milam of the murder of Emmett Till. Months later, Look magazine paid Bryant and Milam $4,000 so they would reveal how they killed the Chicago teen.
The fact that two white men were not convicted of murdering a young Black boy was not surprising in 1955 Mississippi. But what was surprising was the bravery and courage of Till’s uncle Mose Wright, who stood up during the trial and pointed to Bryant and Milam as the men who had kidnapped Till. It was nearly unheard of for a Black man to oppose a white man in court. In doing so, Wright put his own life in danger and immediately left Mississippi soon after.
“Understanding the context in the South at that time, for him to do that was nothing short of courageous,” says Paula Johnson, law professor and co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University. The initiative investigates racially-motivated murders that occurred during the civil rights era.
Two months after Milam and Bryant were acquitted for the murder of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, sparking the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and the beginning of a Civil Rights Movement led by a young minister by the name of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The fight for civil rights, which had mostly been a legal strategy up until that time, had become a mass movement. Soon after there were Freedom Rides, sit-ins at lunch counters, boycotts, demonstrations, and marches. And all of this can be traced back to Emmett Till.
“As we talk about Black Lives Matter, this is what Mamie Till Mobley was saying to us—‘My son’s life matters,’” says Johnson. “Till was not the first lynching but it was a defining moment in so many ways. Emmett Till’s murder galvanized an activist movement of that which continues today.”
Indeed, during the Movement for Black Lives conference in Cleveland this summer, activists of the Black Lives Matter movement honored the families of civil rights martyrs. The first image was of Emmett Till.
Airickca Gordon-Taylor, cousin of Emmett Till and president of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, spoke at the Movement for Black Lives conference. She says Till kicked off the Black Lives Matter movement and noted that he was “a sacrificial lamb.”
“There are so many parallels today to what happened in 1955 and if we’re not careful all of our rights will be stripped away again,” Gordon-Taylor told The Daily Beast. “We have to be very diligent and very mindful and we have to come together as a community to work towards putting people in positions and roles that have our best interests at heart to work toward changing these policies.”
The Justice Department re-opened Till’s case in 2004. His body was exhumed and an autopsy was conducted but it was closed three years later due to the statute of limitations and insufficient evidence. But though no one was ever convicted for the murder of Emmett Till, his name will be forever associated with the fight for justice and civil rights. His life will not be forgotten. In fact, there are several movies being made about Emmett Till. A film based on Benson’s book will begin production next year, and it was recently announced that Jay-Z and Will Smith will produce a movie about Till for HBO.
“In so many ways, the case of Emmett Till was the first Black Lives Matter case,” says Benson. “Emmett Till is certainly a story about racial injustice. It’s a story about white supremacy. But within those elements is a recognition that this is really a story about power. Emmett Till was killed as an expression of power—power over the black body. We have to ask: What might had he been if he had lived?”