The Emmett Till Story and its Impact on Civil Rights

Why the Killing of the Chicago Teen in Mississippi Made International Headlines

Man looking at photo of Emmet Till's Funeral.

Getty Images / Scott Olson 

The tragic Emmett Till story horrified the country. Till was only 14 years old when two white Mississippians killed him for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His death was brutal, and his killers' acquittal shocked the world. His lynching galvanized the civil rights movement as activists dedicated themselves to ending the conditions that had led to Till's death.

Early Childhood

Emmett Louis Till was born on July 25, 1941, in Argo, Ill., a town outside of Chicago. Emmett's mother Mamie left his father, Louis Till, while he was still a baby. In 1945, Mamie Till received word that Emmett's father had been killed in Italy. She did not learn of the exact circumstances until after Emmett's death, when Mississippi Sen. James O. Eastland, in an effort to dampen sympathy for her, revealed to the press that he had been executed for rape.

In her book, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, recounts her son's childhood. He spent his early years surrounded by a large family. When he was 6 years old, he contracted polio. Though he recovered, it left him with a stutter that he struggled to overcome throughout his youth.

Mamie and Emmett spent some time in Detroit but moved to Chicago when Emmett was around 10. She had remarried at this point but left her husband when she learned of his infidelity. Mamie Till describes Emmett as adventurous and independent-minded even when he was a young child. An incident when Emmett was 11 also reveals his courage. Mamie's estranged husband came by their home and threatened her. Emmett stood up to him, grabbing a butcher knife to defend his mother if necessary.


By his mother's account, Emmett was a responsible young man as a preteen and teenager. He loved to cook—pork chops and corn was his favorite meal to prepare. He often took care of the house while his mother was at work. Mamie Till called her son "meticulous." He was proud of his appearance and figured out a way to steam his clothes on the radiator.

But he also had time for fun. He loved music and enjoyed dancing. He had a strong group of friends back in Argo whom he would take the streetcar to see on the weekends. And, like all kids, he dreamed of his future. Emmett told his mother once that he wanted to be a motorcycle policeman when he grew up. He told another relative he wanted to be a baseball player.

Trip to Mississippi

Till's mother's family was originally from Mississippi—they moved to Argo when she was 2—and she still had family there, specifically an uncle, Mose Wright. When Till was 14, he went on a trip during his summer vacation to see his relatives there. He had spent his entire life in or around Chicago and Detroit, cities that were segregated but not by law. Northern cities like Chicago were segregated because of the social and economic consequences of discrimination. As such, they did not have the same sort of rigid customs relating to race that were found in the South.

Emmett's mother warned him that the South was a different environment. She cautioned him to "be careful" and "to humble himself" to the whites in Mississippi if necessary. Accompanied by his 16-year-old cousin, Wheeler Parker Jr., Till arrived in Money, Miss., on Aug. 21, 1955.

Till's Murder

On Wednesday, Aug. 24, Till and seven or eight cousins went by Bryant Grocery and Meat Market, a white-owned grocery that mainly sold goods to the African-American sharecroppers in the area. Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman, was manning the cash register while her husband was on the road, working as a trucker.

Emmett and his cousins were in the parking lot, chatting, and Emmett, in a youthful boast, bragged to his cousins that he had a white girlfriend back in Chicago. What happened next is unclear. His cousins do not agree whether someone dared Emmett to go into the store and get a date with Carolyn.

But Emmett did go into the store and purchased bubble gum. To what extent he attempted to flirt with Carolyn is also unclear. Carolyn changed her story on several occasions, suggesting at various times that he said, "Bye, baby," made lewd comments or whistled at her as he left the store.

His cousins reported that he, in fact, whistled at Carolyn, and they left when she went to her car, apparently to get a gun. His mother suggests that he may have whistled in an attempt to overcome his stutter; he sometimes would whistle when he became stuck on a word. Whatever the context, Carolyn chose to keep the encounter from her husband, Roy Bryant. He learned of the incident from local gossip—a young African-American teenager apparently being so bold with a white woman was unheard of.

At around 2 a.m. on Aug. 28, Roy, along with his half-brother John W. Milam, went to Wright's house and pulled Till out of bed. They kidnapped him, and local farmhand Willie Reed saw him in a truck with around six men (four white men and two African-American men) at around 6 a.m. Willie was on his way to the store, but as he walked away he heard Till's screams.

Three days later, a boy fishing in the Tallahatchie River, 15 miles upstream from Money, found Emmett's body. Emmett had been tied to a fan from a cotton gin, weighing around 75 pounds. He had been tortured before being shot. Till was so unrecognizable that his great-uncle Mose was only able to identify his body from the ring he was wearing (a ring that had belonged to his father).

The Effect of Leaving Emmett Till's Casket Open 

Mamie was informed that her son had been found on Sept. 1. The sheriff of Tallahatchie County wanted Till's mother to agree to burying her son as soon as possible in Mississippi. She refused to go to Mississippi and insisted that her son be shipped to Chicago for burial.

Emmett's mother made the decision to have an open-casket funeral so that everyone could "see what they have done to my boy." Thousands came to see Emmett's badly beaten body, and his burial was delayed until Sept. 6 to make room for the crowds.

Jet magazine, in its Sept. 15 edition, published a photo of Emmett's battered body lying on a funeral slab. The Chicago Defender also ran the photo. Till's mother's decision galvanized African-Americans across the country, and his murder made the front page of newspapers all over the world.

The Trial and a Confession

Roy Bryant's and J.W. Milam's trial started on Sept. 19 in Sumner, Miss. The two main witnesses for the prosecution, Mose Wright and Willie Reed, identified the two men as having been the ones to kidnap Till. The trial lasted five days, and the jury spent a little over an hour in deliberation, reporting that it took so long because they paused to have a soda. They acquitted Bryant and Milam.

Protest rallies took place in major cities across the country after the verdict--the Mississippi press reported that one even occurred in Paris, France. Bryant Grocery and Meat Market eventually went out of business—90 percent of its customers were African-American, and they began boycotting the place.

On Jan. 24, 1956, a magazine published the detailed confessions of Bryant and Milam, who reportedly received $4,000 for their stories. They admitted to killing Till, knowing that they could not be retried for his murder because of double jeopardy. Bryant and Milam said they did it to make an example out of Till, to warn others "of his kind" to not come down to the South. Their stories solidified their guilt in the public's mind.

In 2004, the U.S. Justice Department reopened the case of Till's murder, based on the idea that more men than just Bryant and Milam were involved in Till's murder. No further charges were filed, however.

Till's Legacy

Rosa Parks said of her refusal to move to the back of a bus (in the segregated South, the front of the bus was reserved for whites): "I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn't go back." Parks was not alone in her sentiment. The image of Till's battered body in his open casket served as a rallying cry for African Americans who joined the civil rights movement to ensure there would be no more Emmett Tills.


  • Feldstein, Ruth. Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930-1965. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
  • Houck, Davis W. and Matthew A. Grindy. Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.
  • Till-Mobley, Mamie and Christopher Benson. Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. New York: Random House, Inc., 2004.
  • Waldrep, Christopher. African Americans Confront Lynching: Strategies of Resistance from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.