Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was a 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after offending a white woman in a grocery store. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.
Till was born and raised in Chicago and in August 1955, was visiting relatives near Money, in the Mississippi Deltaregion. He spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the white married proprietor of a small grocery store there. Although what happened at the store is a matter of dispute, Till was accused of flirting with or whistling at Bryant. Years later, Bryant disclosed that, in 1955, she had fabricated testimony that Till made verbal or physical advances towards her in the store. Till's reported behavior, perhaps unwittingly, violated the strictures of conduct for an African American male interacting with a white woman in the Jim Crow-era South.Several nights after the store incident, Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam went armed to Till's great-uncle's house and abducted the boy. They took him away and beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in theTallahatchie River. Three days later, Till's body was discovered and retrieved from the river.
Till's body was returned to Chicago. His mother, who had mostly raised him, insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of the killing. "The open-coffin funeral held by Mamie Till Bradley exposed the world to more than her son Emmett Till's bloated, mutilated body. Her decision focused attention not only on American racism and the barbarism of lynching but also on the limitations and vulnerabilities of American democracy". Tens of thousands attended his funeral or viewed his open casket, and images of his mutilated body were published in black-oriented magazines and newspapers, rallying popular black support and white sympathy across the U.S. Intense scrutiny was brought to bear on the lack of black civil rights in Mississippi, with newspapers around America critical of the state. Although initially local newspapers and law enforcement officials decried the violence against Till and called for justice, they responded to national criticism by defending Mississippians, temporarily giving support to the killers.
In September 1955, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury of Till's kidnapping and murder. Protected against double jeopardy, the two men publicly admitted in a 1956 interview with Look magazine that they had killed Till. In 2004 the case was officially reopened by the United States Department of Justice. The defense team in the 1955 trial had questioned whether the body was that of Till. In 2004, Till's body was exhumed and positively identified. Till's original casket was then donated to the Smithsonian Institution and it is displayed in theNational Museum of African American History and Culture. After Milam and Bryant were acquitted, they initially remained in Mississippi, but were boycotted, threatened, attacked and humiliated by local residents. Milam died in 1980 at the age of 61, and Bryant died in 1994 at the age of 63. Bryant expressed no remorse for his crime and stated: "Emmett Till is dead. I don't know why he just can't stay dead."
The trial of Bryant and Milam received extensive press coverage. Till's murder was seen as a catalyst for the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. In December 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in Alabama and lasted more than a year, gaining a US Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.
According to historians, events surrounding Emmett Till's life and death continue to resonate. Some writers have suggested that almost every story about Mississippi returns to Till, or the Deltaregion in which he died, in "some spiritual, homing way." An Emmett Till Memorial Commission was established in the early 21st century. The Sumner County Courthouse was restored and includes the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. The Emmett Till Memory Project is a website and smartphone app commemorating his life; fifty-one sites in the Mississippi Delta are associated with Till.