The 1955 abduction and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till helped ignite the civil rights movement. A month after the Till lynching, Martin Luther King stated that it “might be considered one of the most brutal and inhuman crimes of the twentieth century” (Papers 6:232). Just three months after Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began. For most of his life, King would use the Till murder as an example of “the evil of racial injustice,” preaching about “the crying voice of a little Emmett Till, screaming from the rushing waters in [Mississippi]” (King, 12 May 1963).
Emmett Till was born in Chicago on 25 July 1941. At the age of 14, he was sent by his parents to visit relatives in LeFlore County, Mississippi. Till was reportedly dared by some local boys to enter Bryant’s Grocery and talk to the white woman behind the counter, who owned the store. According to William Bradford Huie, a journalist who later interviewed the accused, Till entered and touched Carol Bryant and whistled at her as his friends rushed him away. Four days later, on 28 August, he was abducted from his uncle’s home by Bryant’s husband, Roy, and Roy’s half brother, J. W. Milam. Till’s mangled body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River, with a large cotton-gin fan tied around his neck. He had been brutally beaten and shot through the head.
Till’s body was returned to Chicago, where his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so everyone could see the brutality of her son’s death. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other organizations planned demonstrations following the publication of photos of Till’s corpse in Jet magazine. On 19 September the kidnapping and murder trial of Bryant and Milam began. Till’s uncle, Moses Wright, identified the two men as the assailants; but the all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of Till’s murder.
On 24 January 1956, Look magazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” in which the killers gave details of their crime. The U.S. Department of Justice reopened the case in 2004, but the grand jury ultimately refused to issue indictments, citing an expired statute of limitations.
Huie, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” Look 2, no. 2 (24 January 1956): 46–48, 50.
King, “Pride Versus Humility: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican,” Sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 25 September 1955, in Papers 6:230–234.
King, What a Mother Should Tell Her Child, Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 12 May 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.