He’s been dead for 56 years, yet he’d be just 70 years old today.
The Emmett Till story was shocking then but it’s almost unbelievable now. He was a city boy visiting cousins in Mississippi when he whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, while buying bubble gum in a grocery store. A few days later, the woman’s husband and half-brother pulled Till from his uncle’s home at gunpoint, beat him brutally, then shot him to death. The two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, used barbed wire to tie Emmett Till’s body to a cotton gin fan and then dumped it in the Tallahatchie River.
An all-white, all-male jury took just 67 minutes, including a break for soda pop, to acquit Bryant and Milam. (The defense lawyer had told the jury, “I’m sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.”) Safe from further prosecution, Bryant and Milam then freely admitted the killing to Look magazine in exchange for $4000.
Emmett Till’s body was returned to Chicago, where his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral. Jet magazine printed a photo of his mutilated body, and that photo and the bogus trial caused a public outcry across America. Three months later Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Civil Rights movement was truly underway.
The story had a bizarre twist a few years ago. Emmett Till was exhumed in 2005 and reburied in a new casket. His old casket, complete with glass viewing panel, was later found abandoned in a storage shed, hosting a family of opossums. It was part of a larger scandal in which the cemetery director was given 12 years in prison for burying new bodies in old graves and pocketing cash.
On the plus side, the casket is now at the Smithsonian Institution. Here’s an excellent interview with Till’s cousin, who was there the night he was pulled from his bed and murdered.
See our biography of Emmett Till >>