28th August 1955: The murder of black teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi
When Chicago-born Emmett Till was fourteen years old his mother agreed that he could visit his great uncle in the small Mississippi settlement of Money. Before travelling south, she warned her son that life for black people in the South was dramatically different to that of their black neighbourhood in Chicago.
On 24 August, Till and some other black teenage boys gathered outside Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market which was staffed by 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant. All sources confirm that Till entered the store to buy some bubble gum, but what happened next is disputed. Depending on the source it is alleged that that he then either wolf-whistled, flirted, or touched Carolyn.
Carolyn’s husband Roy Bryant was away on a business trip but, on his return, heard the allegations about Till. Incensed that he had crossed the ‘color line’, Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam drove to the home of Till’s great uncle Mose Wright in the early hours of 28 August. They abducted the teenager and beat him severely before shooting him in the head. They then tied his body to a heavy fan and threw it into the Tallahatchie River.
Till’s body was found three days later and was only identifiable from an initialled ring on his finger. Bryant and Milam went on trial for murder but, despite Mose Wright bravely identifying them in court, the all-white jury acquitted them. Protected against double jeopardy, they admitted to the crime in a magazine interview in 1956.
Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so that people could see for themselves what had happened to her son. His brutal murder soon became a rallying point for the Civil Rights Movement.