Emmett Till, a native of Chicago, was killed in 1955 during a visit to Money, Mississippi when he was fourteen years old. Carolyn Bryant, a local woman, falsely claimed that Till had whistled to her when he went into her store to buy something. Some who knew Till claim that...
Emmett Till, a native of Chicago, was killed in 1955 during a visit to Money, Mississippi when he was fourteen years old. Carolyn Bryant, a local woman, falsely claimed that Till had whistled to her when he went into her store to buy something. Some who knew Till claim that he had a lisp which Ms. Bryant somehow mistook as a whistle. Others say that the Chicago boy simply did not know how to behave toward whites in the South and did not show the proper level of deference, such as not looking directly into a white person's eyes when speaking to them. Bryant's story repeatedly changed, depending on whom she was talking to. At the trial, she said that the boy had threatened to rape her. Later, she said that the boy had insulted her. Five decades later, she said that he had touched her hand.
In response to Till's perceived impudence, her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother kidnapped Till from his uncle's home in the middle of the night. In the Deep South at this time, black people had no way of stopping whites from abusing them. Very often, members of the police force were also members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Bryant and his brother beat and tortured Till, shot him in the head, then tied his body with barbed wire to a cotton gin fan and threw him into the Tallahatchie River.
When Till's body was discovered, he was barely recognizable. Mamie Till, his mother, insisted on having an open-casket funeral and invited news photographers to the funeral so that the world could see what crime had been committed against her son. Photos of Till's body went into newspapers and magazines around the world.
For black people, the Till murder was no surprise. Northern and Western blacks, many of whom had migrated to other regions to escape from Southern oppression, knew that one had to act differently down South or face mortal violence. For Southern blacks, what had happened to Till was a fear that they lived with from day to day.
For whites who did not live in the South and did not think much, if at all, about black people, it alerted them to a problem that they knew little, if anything, about. After the horrors that World War II veterans had seen in Europe during the liberation of the concentration camps, it seemed hypocritical to be tolerant of similar abuses on American soil.
Arguably, the Till murder was a catalyst for a sustained Civil Rights movement. Though there had been an effort to make black people full citizens since the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, most strides were small. However, in the year in which Till was killed, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Claudette Colvin organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Nine years after his murder, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, making it impossible to refuse black people equal treatment in public accommodations, which reduced many black people's fears about how they could occupy public space.
The Till murder injected a sense of urgency into the movement that had not existed before, and encouraged more white allies to join in the effort for civil rights.